Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian 17-year old, was blocked from entering the United States allegedly due to his friends’ social media posts. He had travelled from Lebanon to start his Freshman year at Harvard University.
Ajjawi said that he was detained and subjected to hours of questioning, particularly about his religious beliefs and practices, at Boston Logan International Airport.
After searching his phone and laptop, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials cancelled his visa and denied his entry due to his friends’ social media activity.
Ajjawi recounted the ordeal to the Harvard Crimson:
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… 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… I responded that 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.
At the time of this writing, Ajjawi has returned to his home in Lebanon. He is working with an attorney to assist in his visa issue, and Harvard University is working to help resolve this matter.
Because visa records are legally confidential, the State Department has not discussed details of Ajjawi’s case.
Although I understand U.S. Customs and Border Protection help protect our country, I believe we are taking “birds of a feather flock together” too far in this case.
According to the Boston Globe, immigration attorney Brian T. O’Neill did not find immigration officials’ aggressive review of students’ backgrounds arriving from the Middle East and other political hot spots or the flagging of Ajjawi’s friends’ social media activity to be unusual.
It’s discriminatory based on coming out of a dangerous area, not because of a religious area… They think anything bad or possibly bad, they’re going to err on the side of caution and deny it… I don’t think they went outside their normal procedures on this.
Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Center disagreed.
In a Newsweek report, Lopez contended, “The idea that Ajjawi should be prevented from taking his place at Harvard because of his own political speech would be alarming; that he should be denied this opportunity based on the speech of others is downright lawless.”
In the spirit of giving the benefit of the doubt, we do not know how many times U.S. Customs and Border Protection have thwarted terrorist attacks because people from “political hot spots” were extra careful about their direct social media activity and had social media friends who were involved in terrorist organizations.
I think it is a stretch.
Currently, this case looks more like xenophobic practices than “better safe than sorry” procedures. If his account is accurate, I do not believe that immigration officials can prove that Ajjawi poses a threat to the safety of the country because of his social media friends’ posts.
Different people have social media friends with a wide range of perspectives from around the world. It is an irrational leap to assume agreement with every single social media friend’s beliefs and posts.
I agree with Lopez that part of being a U.S. American is freedom of religion and speech. As I have written:*
Whenever I hear people who tell me that Islam is a violent religion, I think about the people who have been enslaved, murdered, and raped in the name of Christian religion. Is Christianity evil, too? If we do not welcome the view of Christianity as a religion of genocidal warriors and greedy mass-murderers, then it is unacceptable to equate Islam with terrorism. Before citing passages from the Qur’an to prove Islam as a religion of violence, I suggest including the scriptures from the Bible that highlight God as a xenophobic homicidal maniac. The reality is this: Both Christianity and Islam have followers with diverse views from fundamentalist, progressive, to extremist interpretations of our holy books and expressions of our faith.
Also, it is deeply disturbing if we think people from the Middle East or “political hot spots” are not allowed freedom to critique the United States. A critique of our domestic and foreign policies is not an inherent security threat or terrorist plot.
We have been dealing with domestic terrorist attacks in this country in the form of mass shootings.
Are we in favor of Homeland Security taking this same “better safe than sorry” approach with everyone’s social media in this country?
*From a post when I identified as a Christian. For more information, see: I Am No Longer a Christian