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Harvard Freshman’s Deportation Indicates Impact of Intensified Border Security Policy

Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian 17-year-old from Lebanon, said he was denied entry to the United States because a border agent found ‘people posting political points of view that oppose the U.S.’ on his social media feeds.

After an incoming Harvard freshman was denied entry to the United States and summarily deported to Lebanon, lawyers and border security experts say the incident is the consequence of a striking policy recently implemented by border officials: checking travelers’ devices and social media activity to determine if they should be allowed in the country. 


Ismail B. Ajjawi, a Palestinian 17-year-old who lives in Lebanon, was deported on August 23 after border officials questioned him for hours, searched his laptop and phone, and canceled the visa allowing him to study in the U.S. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, was the first to report the story. 


Harvard administrators are working to resolve the matter before classes begin next week, a spokesperson told the Crimson.


“The University is working closely with the student’s family and appropriate authorities to resolve this matter so that he can join his classmates in the coming days,” spokesperson Johnathan L. Swain said. 


In a statement to the paper, Ajjawi said he and several other international students faced questioning from immigration officials once they landed in Boston’s Logan Airport on Friday. While other students were allowed to leave the airport, Ajjawi said an immmigration officer questioned him about his religion and life in Lebanon. 


For five hours, Ajjawi said, the officer took his laptop and phone before returning to ask him about his friends’ social media posts. 


“When I asked every time to have my phone back so I could tell them about the situation, the officer refused and told me to sit back in [my] position and not move at all,” Ajjawi wrote in a statement. “After the 5 hours ended, she called me into a room, and she started screaming at me. She said that she found people posting political points of view that oppose the US on my friend[s] list.”


He told the officer that he had not made the political posts and should not be held responsible for what his friends posted on social media, adding that he has “no single post on my timeline discussing politics.” The officer told Ajjawi that his visa was being canceled and that he would be deported immediately. He is now in contact with a lawyer and hopes to be able to start classes next week. 


U. S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Michael S. McCarthy told the Crimson that Ajjawi was deemed “inadmissible” due to what was discovered during the CBP inspection. 


"Applicants must demonstrate they are admissible into the U.S. by overcoming ALL grounds of inadmissibility including health-related grounds, criminality, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds," McCarthy wrote. 


Just last month, Harvard President Laurence Bacow wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump to share his “deep concern over growing uncertainty and anxiety around issues involving international students” and faculty members. 


“Increasingly, visa delays are making these scholars’ attendance and engagement in the university unpredictable and anxiety-ridden,” Bacow wrote. “Students report difficulties getting initial visas—from delays to denials.” 


Lawyers representing clients from the Middle East say their clients are consistently subjected to searches of their devices and not allowed into the country due to social media activity found on their phone, some of which they did not post or save themselves. 


Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch it has become the “new normal” over the past year. He has seen it happen to Arab and Muslim students coming into the U.S. with increasing frequency and at a higher scrutiny level than people coming from other countries. 


 

 

His clients have been turned away at the border for content found in WhatsApp, which automatically downloads received images and videos to a user’s phone. Any questionable content criticizing the U.S. can then be used as a reason to deport or cancel a person’s visa, he Ayoub said. 


“This is part of the backdoor ‘Muslim ban,’” Ayoub told TechCrunch. “We don’t hear of other other individuals being denied because of WhatsApp or because of what’s on the social media.” 


Prominent critics of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including Bacow, say they could be affecting the perception of America abroad and hurting research collaboration across countries. 


“While we support appropriate measures to safeguard valuable intellectual property, national defense, and sensitive, emerging technologies, singling out one country and its citizens is incompatible with the culture and mission of higher education and our national ideals,” Bacow wrote. 

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