Update September 8: This article was amended to reflect the fact that Moseb Zeiton received word today that his VISA was issued for him and his family. He should be arriving in New York next week.
A graduate student from Libya is expected to be able attend classes at Columbia University thanks to Columbia Law School students who helped him secure entry to the U.S. that had been delayed by the State Department.
Moseb Zeiton, a citizen of both Libya and the United Kingdom, planned to arrive with his family in New York City from London in time to begin a master’s program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), for which he had spent months enrolling. But officials at the U.S. Embassy in London advised him they had snagged his visa application to study in the U.S. for so-called administrative processing.
Zeiton called Bernard Harcourt, an Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, after reading about his success in persuading the government to reinstate a visa for Amer Al Homssi, a doctor from Syria who became stranded abroad while trying to return to his job at a hospital in Chicago when the Trump administration’s travel ban took effect.
As he considered Zeiton’s predicament, Harcourt arrived at a way to help that entailed enlisting the students in his section of Legal Methods—an intensive introduction to the study of law that precedes the start of the academic year—to serve as co-counsel in the case.
“I realized [Zeiton] was in a bit of a pickle because he needed to get here and start his classes and this would be a real misfortune for him, and that I had 100 students being introduced to the law, and that this might be a good way to introduce them to law in real time,” recalls Harcourt. “I called Moseb back and asked him if he might be willing to have me represent him—if I used his case in an instructional way, and if he would appear in class.”
Zeiton agreed, and on a recent Thursday afternoon, Harcourt huddled with students in anticipation of meeting with their client, who remained in London. “Let’s go over the case a little bit, and then we’ll call Mr. Zeiton,” Harcourt told them before asking a series of questions that reviewed the facts and law that bore on the bind facing Zeiton.
Though a revised order signed by President Trump in March banned travel to the U.S. from Libya and five other predominantly Muslim countries, the ban exempts visitors of dual nationality (like Zeiton), or, as the Supreme Court ruled in June, visitors who have close ties to a person or entity in the U.S.
Zeiton, who holds passports from both the United Kingdom and Libya, and who had paid thousands of dollars to secure his spot at SIPA, falls outside the ban. As it happens, he also holds a visa for business travel to the U.S., which he visited last year in his capacity as head of compliance at the Central Bank of Libya, to meet with counterparts at the Treasury Department. The bank later offered him an opportunity to pursue a master’s degree at a top university. Zeiton chose Columbia.
Crowdsourcing the case
Back in the classroom, Harcourt recruited Laura Baron ’18, who served as an associate on the Al Homssi case, to lead the students through an analysis of court rulings.
Baron signed on as research assistant to Harcourt after studying criminal law with him in her second year. In addition to researching the law and drafting the complaint in a lawsuit that Al Homssi filed against the Trump administration, she joined the rest of the legal team at O’Hare Airport to document his return.
Harcourt asked Baron to help manage the team in Legal Methods, where they assigned sub-teams of students to review cases and statutes that govern the travel ban, as well as to develop arguments on behalf of their client.
“Suddenly Professor Harcourt emails us one day, and says, ‘Hey, emergency, we need to help this guy out,’” recalls Delia Arias De Leon ’20, who says she drew in part on her own experience applying for a work visa that fell into the black hole of administrative processing.
Baron says she’s impressed by the students’ engagement. “They really dove right in, asking so many important questions,” she says. “They were bringing their own experiences into the case, to really help us understand what kind of options there were.”
Harcourt agrees. “Turns out in a fascinating way you end up with some real local expertise and knowledge that is extremely useful,” he notes.
Zeiton later joined the lawyers via Skype. “Welcome to your legal team,” Harcourt greeted him before introducing Baron along with teaching assistants Jacob Bogart ’18, Maria LaGumina ’18, Chijindu Obiofuma ’18, Kelsey Ruescher ’18, and the rest of the section. “It’s a big team you have right now.”
A reminder of the responsibility
Together the lawyers (current and future) and their client reviewed possible avenues for intervening on his behalf. They reconvened a day later to edit a letter to the State Department that laid out Zeiton’s eligibility for a visa and the harm that would befall him if he were unable to pursue his studies.
In addition to the appeal, the lawyers rallied U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan, to pressure the State Department to grant Zeiton entry.
“This is the kind of thing I came to law school for,” says Fatima Bishtawi ’20 of the experience. “It’s that hands-on approach that I’m excited about and hope to pursue throughout my law school career.”
“Professor Harcourt treats us as his co-counsel for these cases, which is a reminder of what we’re here to be doing,” adds her classmate Emilie Schwarz ’20, who worked at a nonprofit that advocates for reform of the justice system.
Daniel Fahrenthold ’20, who worked as a paralegal before enrolling in law school, agrees. “It definitely gives you an impression of the responsibility of being an attorney, to try and get the outcome [the client] needs.”
The advocacy achieved its aim. On Aug. 31, Zeiton and his wife received messages from consular officials in London suggesting the visas would be issued in time for Zeiton to start classes.
Though the legal team will be watching to make sure the visas arrive, the news persuaded the lawyers to hold off before filing anything further.
“It looks good,” Harcourt told the class, which burst into applause. “Your first victory, possibly. You’re one-for-one. Great job.”
“Moseb probably will have to go right into his classes, but maybe we’ll try to have a little celebration,” he added.
On September 8th, Moseb received word that the VISA was issued.
“A Syrian Doctor Returns to Illinois” (The New Yorker)
“A Syrian Doctor with a Visa is Suing the Trump Administration” (The New Yorker)
Posted on September 5, 2017