The Silha Center Bulletin

Fall 2019: Volume 25, No. 1

Harvard Freshman Allegedly Denied Entry into U.S. Over Friends’ Social Media Posts; DHS Proposes Rule Expanding Collection of Social Media Information

On Aug. 27, 2019, The Harvard Crimson reported that U.S. border officials had revoked 17-year-old Harvard freshman Ismail B. Ajjawi’s visa and deported the student to Lebanon after interrogating him about his friends’ political posts on social media. On September 3, the Crimson reported that Ajjawi had been admitted into the United States as a student on an F1 visa the day before, after border officials reviewed the case. Nevertheless, Ajjawai’s deportation prompted criticism among free speech advocates of the dangers posed by requiring visa applicants to submit their social media user names to immigration officials. Meanwhile, on Sept. 4, 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a proposed rule expanding the agency’s collection of social media information on visa forms and immigration applications.

Ajjawi arrived at Boston Logan International Airport on August 23 before classes at Harvard University were set to begin on September 3. According to the Crimson, Ajjawi claimed that his phone and laptop were searched and that he was questioned at the airport for over five hours. Ajjawi wrote in a statement to the Crimson that an immigration officer claimed that they had “found people posting political points of view that oppose the U.S. on my friend list.” Ajjawi explained that he replied to the officer that he “shouldn’t be held responsible for what others post.” Then, the Crimson reported, Ajjawi’s visa was revoked and he returned to Lebanon.

Michael McCarthy, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), told The Washington Post that he could not comment on the specifics of Ajjawi’s case because of privacy rules. However, McCarthy noted that 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.”

Free-speech advocates criticized the alleged actions taken by the CBP. Sarah McLaughlin, the director of targeted advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The New York Times on August 27 that there had been “numerous recent accusations that U.S. immigration officials are denying visas on the basis of political viewpoints.” McLaughlin added that “Ajjawi’s allegations, if accurate, represent a threat to academic freedom, one that should be taken seriously by those who care about protecting expressive freedoms in the United States.”

In an August 27 statement, Carrie DeCell, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University (Knight Institute), argued that the case underscored the issues with giving the government broad authority to access social media accounts in immigration decisions. “The revocation of this student’s visa underscores the problems with giving the government broad authority to conduct invasive searches of travelers’ cell phones and laptops in the hope of uncovering critical or controversial speech, and to exclude them from the U.S. based on their speech, beliefs, or associations,” DeCell wrote. “The chilling effects of incidents like these ripple through communities far beyond Harvard’s incoming freshman class, resulting in widespread self-censorship on social media and threatening intellectual freedom.”

Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow expressed concern about the student visa process in a July 2019 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan. “Increasingly, visa delays are making these scholars’ attendance and engagement in the university unpredictable and anxiety-ridden,” he wrote. “Students report difficulties getting initial visas — from delays to denials. Scholars have experienced postponements and disruptions for what have previously been routine immigration processes such as family visas, renewals of status, or clearance for international travel.”

On September 3, the Crimson reported that after further review by the CBP, Ajjawi overcame all grounds of inadmissibility and was admitted into the United States as a student on an F1 visa on September 2. According to the Crimson, Ajjawi’s family issued a statement thanking those who assisted Ajjawi, including AMIDEAST — a scholarship organization sponsoring Ajjawi’s education.  

Meanwhile, on September 4, DHS announced a proposed rule expanding the agency’s collection of social media information on visa forms and immigration applications. In the announcement of the proposed rule titled “Generic Clearance for the Collection of Social Media Information on Immigration and Foreign Travel Forms,” posted to the federal registry, DHS stated that the agency had “identified the collection of social media user identifications . . . as important for identity verification, immigration and national security vetting.”

According to a November 25 report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy advocacy organization, questions requesting visa applicants to provide their social media identifying information or “handles” were previously listed as “optional” on several forms beginning in 2017. Under DHS’s proposed rule, the questions would become mandatory. The proposed rule also declared that 12 forms used by CBP and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would collect social media handles and associated social media platforms used by applicants for the last five years. Such social media platforms include Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Ask.fm, Weibo, Myspace, YouTube, and LinkedIn. The applications will not collect passwords, meaning the agencies would be able to only view information that the user publicly shared.

The proposed rule was drafted in order to comply with Section 5 of Executive Order (E.O.) 13780, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which required the implementation of uniform vetting standards and the proper collection of all information necessary for a rigorous evaluation of all grounds of inadmissibility or bases for the denial of immigration-related benefits. 82 FR 13209 (Mar. 9, 2017). The full proposed rule is available online at: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/09/04/2019-19021/agency-information-collection-activities-generic-clearance-for-the-collection-of-social-media.

A DHS spokesperson told CNN on September 6 that the proposed rule marked the first time citizenship and immigration services would require social media accounts and handles on applications. Although the department uses social media information in vetting applicants, the spokesperson noted that the process of connecting social media accounts to applicants was labor-intensive. Collecting usernames, the spokesperson said, would reduce the time needed to identify social media accounts. The proposed changes were expected to begin in 2020, the spokesperson added.

Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, told CNN that the development was “a reflection of the extent to which US government agencies have really expanded use of social media surveillance.” Handeyside contended that the policy would “inevitably hamper freedom of speech,” because people self-censor when they know the government is watching. Handeyside added that there is “no way DHS can do this without also sweeping up the online speech of [U.S.] citizens.”

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, told CNN that there was “no evidence at all that social media monitoring is useful in identifying security threats.”

EFF staff attorneys Saira Hussain and Sophia Cope argued in a November 25 post that the “proposed rule infringes upon anonymous speech.” Hussain and Cope explained that the “collection of anonymous social media handles tied to real-world identities could present a dangerous situation for individuals living under oppressive regimes who use such accounts to criticize their government or advocate for the rights of minority communities.”

On November 4, more than 40 civil society organizations and human rights groups, including the ACLU and EFF, signed a joint letter drafted by the Brennan Center for Justice urging DHS to withdraw the department’s proposed rule. “Civil, human, and immigrant rights organizations have repeatedly opposed the federal government’s collection and screening of social media information, and raised concerns about the chilling effect on speech, intrusion into privacy, and disparate impact of the government’s policies, as well as the government’s discriminatory deployment of this practice,” the letter read. The full letter is available online at: https://www.epic.org/apa/comments/Coalition-Comments-DHS-Social-Media-Collection-Nov2019.pdf.

— Sarah Wiley

Silha Research Assistant