An Iranian scientist who lives in Switzerland is suing US President Donald Trump and top officials of two federal agencies, in a direct challenge to Trump’s ban on visitors from some Muslim-majority countries.
Her lawsuit comes just as the recently departed United States ambassador to Switzerland, Suzi LeVine, took to Facebook to ridicule Trump’s immigration crackdown – and to assert that “extraordinary amounts of vetting” already occurs with Iranians and others headed to the US.
LeVine said her views were reinforced by observing Switzerland’s special role as protector of US interests in Iran. Trump’s most controversial executive order on January 27 banned Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.
The scientist, Samira Asgari, filed suit in a US federal court in Massachusetts on Thursday, seeking to compel the Trump administration to allow her to fill the post she was offered at a Harvard Medical School lab.
Asgari twice tried to fly to the United States to take the new job she was offered.
An Iranian national, Asgariexternal link holds a doctorate degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFLexternal link), where she had been working as a research biologist. She is an expert in genomics, infectious diseases, and computational biology, and won a Swiss National Science Foundation grant in October 2016 to enable her to study in Boston.
Dr. Soumya Raychaudhuri, a scientist and physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, had recruited Asgari last year to join his world-renowned human genomics labexternal link, which is studying the role of human genetic variation in tuberculosis progression.
“It was hoped that this research would further the collective understanding of translational medicine, and lead to the development of safer and more effective drugs for the treatment of tuberculosis,” Asgari wrote in her legal complaint, posted in full external linkon Politico.
Asgari applied for J-1 visa from the US in late November 2016 and resigned from her position in a genomics laboratory in Lausanne. The US issued her the visa – on the same day as Trump’s executive order on Muslim immigration. In addition to Trump, her lawsuit named as defendants the head of the US Department of Homeland Securityexternal link and two officials with Customs and Border Protectionexternal link, which is part of Homeland.
Her first attempted flight was on January 28 aboard Lufthansa Air Lines, whose parent company, Lufthansa Group, owns SWISS airlines. She left Zurich and got as far as Frankfurt, Germany, where a US consular official turned her away at the gate.
“I was heartbroken because I was so eager to go to Boston to continue my research,” she wrote. “I returned to Zurich and sought the assistance of an attorney in the United States.”
After she learned of a temporary restraining order against Trump’s ban, she booked another flight for Boston, this time on SWISS airlines. It was scheduled to leave Zurich on January 31. But on her way to the airport, an airline representative phone her to say she would not be allowed to board.
Undeterred, she continued to the airport, where she cleared security and checked her bags, but was told at the gate that Customs and Border Protection had directed SWISS not to let her get on the plane.
“On information and belief, CBP threatened that if SWISS did not comply with the Directive, the flight might be denied permission to land, and the airline might be subject to fines of up to $50,000,” she contended in the lawsuit.
The airline told swissinfo.ch there was no direct threat in her case but it knew the consequences of non-compliance, so it acted accordingly.
“SWISS is obliged by law to strictly adhere to US immigration requirements. Passengers concerned are advised to contact the nearest US consulate or embassy for further information,” said Karin Müller, a spokesperson for SWISSexternal link, in an e-mail on Friday.
“In general, we do not comment on individual cases, but I would like to let you know that we were not threatened by the US authorities (US Customs & Border Protection),” she wrote. “However, a non-compliance will lead to a fine for SWISS (or any other airline). So SWISS strictly adheres to the directives of the US authorities in any case.”
Before leaving her post as US ambassador on January 20, LeVine studiously avoided any comment about or criticism of the incoming Trump administration. However, in a Facebook postexternal link on February 1, she let loose with her thoughts about the immigration ban.
As ambassador, LeVine wrote, she oversaw “probably the most interesting and complex consular office with the most diverse set of requests in the world. On any given day, we might have people from over 50 different nationalities coming in for visa transactions. And, because Switzerland is the United States’ protecting power in Iran, my team also worked with Swiss diplomats in Tehran to take care of the many American citizens who live in and/or travel to Iran.”
LeVine wrote that “during the campaign, then candidate Trump suggested that we needed “extreme vetting” measures to keep the terrorists out. Now, as President, he is doubling down on the assertion that the consular staffs are not doing enough. That is ridiculous!”
“Mr. Trump,” she continued, “before you malign amazing officers and locally employed staff who are working hard to keep our country safe, I encourage you to visit one of our consular facilities abroad and/or to see and learn about those processes yourself. They are already doing extraordinary amounts of vetting.”