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Why was a standout computer scientist from Jordan prevented from returning to the U.S. to defend his PhD thesis and take a job at Microsoft Research in Redmond, after the U.S. government funded his education to the tune of $250,000?

Omar Zadain, as pictured on his website

That’s the question posed in a letter to President Obama by a professor from the Johns Hopkins University Computer Science Department, who calls the Jordanian citizen, Omar F. Zaidan, the best PhD student he has supervised in his 6 years on the job.

“This is madness,” writes associate research professor Chris Callison-Burch in the letter to Obama, dated June 9 and written on Johns Hopkins letterhead. “Omar is exactly the type of person who the US should be actively recruiting to come to the country.”

The letter, tweeted by Callison-Burch and posted on Hacker News, is reigniting a debate over high-tech immigration policies, as the U.S. Congress tries to move ahead with long-awaited immigration reform.

Callison-Burch writes in the letter that Zaidan’s education and PhD stipend were funded by DARPA grants. He says that Zaidan was prevented from returning to the U.S. from Cairo on his student visa more than a year-and-a-half ago, after leaving the country and getting married.


The letter explains, “On his return flight back to Baltimore to defend his thesis, he was not allowed to board his plane in Cairo. The flight staff tore up his ticket without explanation. He returned home to Jordan and went to the U.S. embassy where they told him that nothing was wrong with his student visa. A week later, the embassy called him back to say that they had found the problem. They said that if he came in, they would fix it. Instead of fixing it, they stamped CANCELED across his student visa without explaining what was wrong, and refused to answer any questions as to why.”

The letter says Microsoft tried unsuccessfully to bring Zaidan to the country on an H-1B visa.

I’ve sent a message to Zaidan seeking more information. Microsoft, which doesn’t discuss personnel matters as a matter of policy, declined to comment.

The company has called for reforms in immigration policy to bring more highly skilled workers into the country while charging companies more, to fund science, technology, engineering and math education for U.S. students.

Callison-Burch concludes the letter to Obama by noting that Zaidan and his wife have had a child in the meantime.

If their son had been born in the US, he himself would have been an American citizen. If this boy grew up with his father’s intellect and his mother’s compassion, he could have followed in your footsteps. He would have lived the American dream. He would have an ambassador for his faith and his heritage. He would have been a perfect addition to our country, in a time when so many of our citizens would benefit from this perspective on who Muslims are.

The US squandered its financial resources and gave up on a great intellectual opportunity when we excluded Omar Zaidan from the country. The unthinking bureaucracy and its inaction saddens me deeply. But nothing breaks my heart more than the thoughts of Omar’s son not growing up alongside my own son, and how much different his family would have been (and the community that they would have touched) if the US had been able to recognize Omar’s inherent goodness.

Read the full text of the letter here: PDF.

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