‘Lawless’ and ‘despicable’: Harvard freshman deported after immigration agents search social media and find friends critical of US policy

‘This is a move so perverse, so grotesque as to defy explanation.’

A Palestinian student set to attend his freshman year at Harvard was reportedly denied entry to the U.S. based on his friends’ social media posts, setting off a firestorm of criticism from progressives, though not the so-called “free speech warriors” of the right.

Ismail B. Ajjawi, 17, who won a full scholarship to Harvard, was sent back to his home in Lebanon Friday from Boston’s Logan International Airport after an hours-long interrogation by immigration officers, who he said also searched his phone and computer.

“An incoming Palestinian Harvard student is being punished not even for his own speech, but for the speech of his friends *that was critical of the US*,” tweeted Jillian York, director of the International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ”Note the crickets from the conservative ‘free speech’ defenders.”

An incoming Palestinian Harvard student is being punished not even for his own speech, but for the speech of his friends *that was critical of the US*.

Note the crickets from the conservative “free speech” defenders. https://t.co/O0efscNCEm

—jillian (@jilliancyork) August 27, 2019

Ajjawi laid out his experience in a written statement reported by the Harvard Crimson on Monday evening:

Ajjawi wrote that he spent eight hours in Boston before he was required to leave. Upon arrival, Ajjawi faced questioning from immigration officials along with several other international students. While the other students were allowed to leave, Ajjawi alleges an immigration officer continued to question him about his religion and religious practices in Lebanon.

The same officer then asked him to unlock his phone and laptop, and left to search them for roughly five hours, Ajjawi alleges. After the search, the officer questioned him about his friends’ social media activity.

The officer left Ajjawi in a room alone for five hours, Ajjawi said, then brought him into another room for further questioning.

“She called me into a room, and she started screaming at me,” Ajjawi said. “She said that she found people posting political points of view that oppose the US on my friend[s] list.”

Ajjawi, who said he has no posts on politics on his social media feeds, told the immigration officer he couldn’t be held responsible for points of view held by his friends.

“Not even his own feed,” Rolling Stone‘s Jamil Smith said on Twitter. “All it took.”

U.S. officials revoked a young Palestinian’s visa after he arrived to begin his freshman year at Harvard. Why? The student says an officer claimed she “found people posting political points of view that oppose the US.” Not even his own feed. All it took.

—Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) August 27, 2019

Despite his protests, Ajjawi’s attempts to defend himself were of no avail—his visa was canceled on the spot and he was put on a plane back to Lebanon.

The news led cartoonist Brian McFadden to tie Ajjawi’s experience to that of immigrants from Latin America.

“CBP goons aren’t just harassing people at the southern border,” tweeted McFadden. “They’re right here at Logan airport, being fascist as shit.”

In a statement, free speech organzation PEN America’s Summer Lopez, the group’s senior director of Free Expression Programs, decried the decision to send Ajjawi back to Lebanon.

“This is a move so perverse, so grotesque as to defy explanation,” said Lopez. “Preventing people from entering the country because their friends critiqued the U.S. on social media shows an astounding disregard for the principle of free speech.”

“The idea that Ajjawi should be prevented from taking his place at Harvard because of his own political speech would be alarming,” Lopez continued, “that he should be denied this opportunity based on the speech of others is downright lawless.”

Further, said Lopez, by canceling Ajjawi’s visa the U.S. government acted in direct opposition to the stated goal of international exchange programs.

“This despicable action also flies in the face of the purpose of international educational exchange, which is to open the mind and expand one’s understanding of the world,” Lopez said. “Instead, Ajjawi has been shown only the U.S.’s failure to uphold the very values it purports to stand for.”

Ajjawi’s visa cancelation came just days before the U.S. State Department removed Palestine from its official list of countries.

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Eoin Higgins is senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @EoinHiggins.

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