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Lost in the dispute over the University of Massachusetts' controversial restrictions on Iranian students was the woman who inadvertently sparked it all.
Her name is Zahra Khalkhali, and her case has become a cause célèbre on UMass' Amherst campus. After dreaming of a degree from a prestigious American university, she is now stuck at home, her career on hold, an accidental victim of diplomatic red tape.
She is 31, from a small city outside Tehran, the capital, and until a few weeks ago was a second-year doctoral student in UMass' Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department. She recently visited her family back home, but when she began making preparations to return, a routine immigration inquiry into her research — on fuel cells used to produce clean energy — prompted the university to drop its sponsorship.
Thinking she could still make it into the United States on a visa, on Jan. 14 she flew to New York — where she says she was handcuffed, held overnight and deported.
While in custody, Khalkhali said she tried to persuade university officials to tell immigration authorities to allow her to travel to Amherst to plead for reinstatement.
"I was very shocked and heartbroken," she told NBC News in a phone interview from Iran. "I was hoping they would take responsibility and call on my behalf and support me. But I didn’t receive that support.”
School officials told her they dropped her after they'd grown concerned her work could be seen as violating a 2012 law mean to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. That was news to her. "They were all aware of my research," she said. "The university was aware what my PhD thesis was about."
She also said that the U.S. State Department approved her visa after reviewing her research plan — which she assumed would allow her back into the United States, even without a UMass sponsorship letter. "They decided my case was safe," she said.
But UMass said Tuesday night that three weeks before her arrival in New York, the university had notified the federal government through Homeland Security's online Student and Exchange Visitor Information System that she was no longer a student. "Given that the university notified both the student and the federal government of the cessation of her status as a student, university officials were very surprised that she apparently had subsequently obtained a visa and traveled to New York," UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment on Khalkhali's ordeal. The U.S. State Department referred inquiries to UMass and said they couldn't discuss the details of individual's cases as they are are confidential under Section 222(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
In prior statements on the case, State Department officials have said that a visa does not ever guarantee entry into the country, and that DHS has the right to turn people away.
"I was hoping they would take responsibility and call on my behalf and support me. But I didn’t receive that support."
Khalkhali said she didn't want to do anything to hurt UMass' reputation; she still holds the school in high regard, and hopes to someday be allowed to study there again. But her experience shook her confidence. "The decision made on my case was not fair," she said. "It was made unilaterally and I was not there to defend my case or get advice or change my program."
Khalkhali, who is from the city of Qazvin, a two-hour drive northwest of Tehran, said she worked in a private lab analyzing glass and ceramic materials before enrolling in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department in September 2013. At the time, she had no idea where her research would take her. She just knew that a doctorate from UMass, which she expected to earn in 2017, would be a good career step. She developed the plan for fuel cells research with the help of her faculty advisor. Neither of them, she said, was aware of the 2012 law.
After hearing that UMass did not want her back, Khalkhali asked her advisor for help, but he said he could do nothing, according to a copy of an email provided to NBC News by a Khalkhali supporter. The administration, the advisor said, was concerned that her use of certain chemicals could run afoul of the sanctions.
"The university made this extremely difficult position based on the trajectory of your research plan, and to ensure that no one involved potentially violated these laws," the advisor wrote.
In late January, as she asked UMass to reconsider, the school began writing a new admissions policy to protect itself from liability under the law, which allowed the federal government to deny visas to Iranian nationals if they were pursuing an education in the United States in preparation for careers in Iran’s nuclear, petroleum or natural gas fields.
The new UMass policy, announced Feb. 6, barred Iranian nationals from an array of science and engineering fields beyond what the law outlined. Asked why it was being done then, a university spokesman said the decision was “prompted by an inquiry from a student,” but didn't say more.
The move drew criticism from Iranian students, UMass faculty and other groups who said the decision should be left to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, which reviews Iranian students on a case-by-case basis.
But just few days later — after a slew of media attention — UMass reversed itself and settled for "individualized study plans" to make sure Iranian students' work was complying with the law.
But the students who fought the new policy didn't stop there. They want Khalkhali back.
“The student did not do anything wrong, and we regret that she endured a difficult and trying period at the airport."
"This is a demand that everyone has," said Amir Mikhchi, an Iranian-American friend of Khalkhali's who has lobbied on her behalf. "I think she has a very good case that she has been mistreated."
Some Iranian students said they made the request in a meeting Monday with UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, an immigrant from India who expressed sympathy to Khalkhali's plight.
“The student did not do anything wrong, and we regret that she endured a difficult and trying period at the airport," Subbaswamy said in a statement Tuesday night. "We are exploring how we might help her continue her education, and if we can identify an alternative line of study that fulfills the requirements of federal law.”
Khalkhali heard about that, and it has given her hope.
"I’d like to continue my education and get my degree," she said. "I was so disappointed, but recently, as I heard news about the efforts that the Iranian students and faulty have made, I was again encouraged to continue my education and return to my university."