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Free Expression, Government Surveillance

Ismail Ajjawi’s Fundamental Free Speech & Association Rights Trampled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Ismail B. Ajjawi, a Palestinian resident of Lebanon, is a freshman admitted to Harvard College who sought to enter the United States on his student visa last Friday. Upon arrival, he was detained at Boston Logan Airport for eight hours. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) interrogated him about his religion and the religious practices in Lebanon, and searched his cell phone and laptop. Afterward, a CBP officer interrogated Ajjawi about his friends’ social media activity. 

“[The CBP officer] started screaming at me. She said that she found people posting political points of view that oppose the U.S. on my friend[s] list,” Ajjawi said. He also wrote that he “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.” He is absolutely right. 

Nonetheless, CBP revoked his visa and forced Ajjawi to return to Lebanon. We do not know what role the social media posts played in his denial, as CBP only issued the following statement:

“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. This individual was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”

Ajjawi is currently receiving legal assistance to secure his inclusion in the class of 2023, and his interaction with CBP received a great deal of media attention. But for the many travelers to the United States who will not have the institutional support of Harvard or the attention of the media, we must reflect on the policies that enabled CBP’s egregious conduct. It is outrageous and unacceptable that this student would have to answer for the online activity of others, and potentially be denied entry because of such activity. However, this is the predictable and natural consequence of the President’s demand that immigrants face “extreme vetting” and the federal government’s decision to include social media screening as a part of this mandate.

It is outrageous and unacceptable that this student would have to answer for the online activity of others, and potentially be denied entry because of such activity.

Social Media Screening

Many federal agencies have turned to social media screening to aid their decision-making about who receives an immigration benefit, a visa, or is allowed to enter the country. Most recently, in May, the State Department began mandating that the vast majority of visa applicants—14.7 million of them—provide their social media identifiers for a select number of sites they have used in the past five years. CDT repeatedly sounded the alarm that social media screening will result in a number of predictable harms:

  • It will chill the exercise of freedom of speech and association;
  • It will inhibit the ability to speak anonymously online;
  • It will leave immigrants vulnerable to pretextual denials of benefits;
  • It will result in racial profiling and discrimination;
  • It will result in mistaken negative inferences; and 
  • Due to the scale of data, government agencies could attempt to implement a faulty automated vetting system

Ajjawi’s interrogation and subsequent denial of entry are a manifestation of these predicted harms. We’ve long known that visa applicants and holders would feel the need to limit their social media engagement for fear that casual connections on social media may be perceived as a suspicious affiliation. For example, the U.S. government could perceive an applicant’s relationship with a Facebook friend or an Instagram follower as an intimate association, even though social media connections need not be based on any actual relationship. Even if the connection is based upon an actual relationship, CBP’s questioning suggests that travelers may be held responsible for any and all speech found in their network. If travelers and immigrants are held responsible for the content and speech of others, the only way to be safe is not have an online presence—hardly a feasible or desirable path for digital natives like Ajjawi who rely on the internet for education, banking, job opportunities, and more. 

Border Searches of Electronic Devices

Ajjawi was also subjected to a search of his cell phone and laptop. CBP claims they have the authority to search electronic devices without a warrant, due to the border search exception. We contest this assertion. However in the absence of legislation or a court ruling affording travelers greater protection, people like Ajjawi are vulnerable to these searches. Even as a visa holder, Ajjawi has no right to enter the country. If CBP demands to search his electronic devices, Ajjawi must comply or risk being denied entry to the United States. This puts travelers in an impossible position. Ajjawi is not unique, with border searches of electronic devices having steadily increased over the years. The Protecting Data at the Border Act of 2019, introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky), would arm Congress with more information about when and why these searches take place, and data on the nationality and perceived race of those whose devices were searched. This reporting could prompt Congress to consider heightening the protections for non-U.S. persons at the border.

What Happens Next

Despite the widespread news coverage of what happened to Ajjawi, we need more information in order to better under the scope and ramifications of the incident. We likely will not learn why he was denied entry, but CBP can and must answer a few basic questions:

  • How did CBP get Ajjawi’s social media identifier?
  • Why was he asked about his friends’ activity?
  • What prompts a review of a traveler’s online presence?
  • Do CBP personnel receive any guidance about how to assess social media data?
  • Are CBP personnel trained to understand the data quality limitations of social media?
  • What safeguards are in place to ensure that travelers are not subjected to a pre-textual denial?
  • While not his own speech, is speech critical of the U.S. government sufficient grounds for denial of entry?

There is also a role that Congress must play. Amid criticism of the Administration’s border and immigration control efforts, Congress may not approve of social media screening with the same fervor it once did. If so—if stories like Ajjawi’s are considered alarming—then Congress must capitalize on the attention this matter is receiving and act to curtail this kind of abuse. We supported Congressional efforts to learn more about CBP’s Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative, and the use of social media monitoring to surveil and create dossiers on activists, journalists and lawyers associated with asylum seekers. We have called on Congress to provide adequate oversight of the State Department’s use of social media data. Congress should compel CBP to disclose any guidance its personnel receive on social media screening. And on border searches of electronic devices, we continue to need legislation imposing a warrant requirement.

We hope that Ajjawi will soon be able to join his peers at Harvard. We also hope that this story prompts reform. Otherwise the government’s actions will dampen the exercise of fundamental human rights.