During the Cold War, the U.S. college and university system was seen as a prime example of soft power. Foreign students would encounter not only American products and pop culture, but an attitude of openness to new ideas and differing perspectives that made the communist world appear repressive and insecure in contrast. Ideally, those students then went back to their home countries more sympathetic to the U.S., thus advancing American prestige and power without the U.S. government needing to spend anything in either military or economic aid.
That background makes all the more frustrating reports about the recent experience of Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian resident of Lebanon, who was deported in August before ever getting out of the airport or reaching the Harvard campus where he was set to begin his freshman year.
According to The Harvard Crimson, which broke the story, Customs and Border Protection officials detained Ajjawi at Boston’s Logan Airport for eight hours on Aug. 23 after he flew in for first-year orientation at Harvard. Agents went through his computer and his social media accounts. Ajjawi told the Crimson that the CBP officials (at least one of whom, he said, also treated him unprofessionally) started to grill him about the contents not of his social media accounts, but instead about statements written by his friends, including threads in which he hadn’t participated.
After this review, and apparently disconcerted by what the friends had said about the United States, CBP canceled Ajjawi’s visa and deported him back to Lebanon. Ajjawi told the Crimson that the decision was made despite his telling the CBP officer: “I have no business with such posts and that I didn’t like, [s]hare or comment on them and told her that I shouldn’t be held responsible for what others post. … I have no single post on my timeline discussing politics.”
Ajjawi’s experience highlights the dangers of a new social media policy adopted by the State Department, requiring all visa applicants to the United States to “submit any information about social media accounts they have used in the past five years.” At the time the new regulation was announced, FIRE, the academic civil liberties organization, warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the policy likely would lead prospective students to self-censor. The group also cautioned that the policy would backfire, perhaps by inspiring “other countries to do the same against American students studying abroad” or, at the very least, by threatening “the free speech rights of [foreign students’] American associates—whether family members, friends, or fellow students.”
FIRE also issued a statement last week criticizing the treatment of Ajjawi, noting that, if his “allegations are accurate,” the record represents “a stunning departure from core constitutional principles: first, that controversial views should not face governmental punishment, and second, that someone should not be punished for another person’s speech.”
That caveat is an important one. To date, we only have Ajjawi’s version of events. CBP confirmed he was deported but offered no specifics beyond telling the Crimson that Ajjawi “was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”
The Trump administration’s credibility on immigration issues of any type involving Muslims is zero. And the student’s allegations are hardly implausible given the potential for abuse under the policy. At the same time, there certainly are legitimate reasons, including some that are fairly mundane, for why CBP would cancel the visa of a foreign student. Consider, for example, a recent example of a Chinese student who was deported after trying to bring body armor into the United States. (The student appears to have been afraid of the prospect of mass shootings.) It’s possible, if not likely based on what’s now known, that CBP officials found something that triggered legitimate security concerns when searching Ajjawi’s computer and acted accordingly.
If not, however, and If Ajjawi, in fact, never even posted on political issues, the idea that a prospective student could be denied the opportunity to study at Harvard simply because of what his friends said on social media is indefensible. The outcome would send a message to prospective U.S. university students from the Middle East that they not only need to watch what they say, but they also need to monitor their friends’ statements, and then distance themselves from those critical of U.S. policies. Further, the decision would create a precedent that legitimates the government taking action against individuals based on what others in their social networks do online—a standard that would place the burden on any social media user to constantly monitor the actions of others in their network, lest they be accountable for them.
Even if Ajjawi had occasionally posted on political questions, though, the precedent would be dangerous. Would a future Bernie Sanders administration, for example, seek to deny entry to a Jewish Israeli student who had advocated annexation of the West Bank on his Twitter feed?
A Harvard spokesperson has said that the university was doing what it can to persuade CPB to reconsider its actions and let Ajjawi back into the country. And on Monday evening, the Crimson reported that the federal government had reconsidered allowing Ajjawi into the U.S., and the student had arrived on campus in time for the start of classes on Tuesday. Unless there is damning evidence about his personal conduct or writings that contradicts what’s now publicly available, advocates of free expression on campus should be glad that Harvard succeeded.
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KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.