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Palestinian Student Denied US Entry to Study at Harvard

FILE - Students walk near the Widener Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aug. 13, 2019. University and federal officials confirmed that incoming Harvard student Ismail Ajjawi, 17, of Lebanon, was refused entry into the U.S.
Palestinian Student Denied Visa to Study at Harvard
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United States officials denied a Palestinian student’s request to enter the country this month. The student was planning to attend classes at Harvard University.

Some Americans are calling what happened to him an example of overly invasive safeguards at U.S. border checkpoints.

Ismail Ajjawi was refused entry after landing last week at Boston’s airport in Massachusetts. The 17-year-old said his denial was linked to political messages published by his friends on social media.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, however, would not confirm the information. The official told The Associated Press (AP) that the decision to cancel Ajjawi’s visa was based on information discovered during an inspection. The official added, he can still try to reapply for visa to enter the country.

Ajjawi told the Harvard University student newspaper that federal agents detained him for eight hours. He said they searched his electronic devices and questioned him about his friends’ social media posts. They included “political points of view that oppose the U.S.,” he said in a statement.

“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,” Ajjawi wrote.

A Harvard University official said the school is working “to resolve this matter so that he can join his classmates in the coming days.”

AMIDEAST, a not-for-profit organization that awarded Ajjawi a scholarship, is providing legal assistance.

Summer Lopez is a senior director with PEN America, a nonprofit organization that works for free speech. She said, “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.”

Carrie DeCell is a lawyer with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Colombia University in New York. She said that the incident could result in self-censorship on social media and threaten intellectual freedom.

The AP reports a group that calls for stronger immigration laws, the Center for Immigration Studies, did not answer its request for comment. But the administration of President Donald Trump has said the increased searches are critical to prevent extremists from entering the country.

Search of electronic devices

U.S. agents have been inspecting electronic devices and social media posts at border points for some time.

In June, the State Department expanded the measures, requiring nearly all foreigners seeking U.S. visas to provide their social media usernames. They also are required to list current and former email addresses and phone numbers.

In the past, such information was requested only of individuals identified for more investigation, such as people who had traveled to areas controlled by terrorist groups.

It is not clear how many social media searches border officials have carried out since the new policy took effect. But the agency did conduct more than 33,000 electronic device searches during a 12-month period ending in September 2018. That is four times higher than the 8,500 searches conducted three years earlier. The government released those numbers as a result of legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.

Ajjawi told The Harvard Crimson newspaper he still hopes to join his classmates in time for the start of classes next week. His family lives in a camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

I'm Anne Ball.

Philip Marcelo reported this story for The Associated Press. Hai Do adapted his story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

checkpoint - n. a place where people, cars etc., are searched before being permitted to continue

reapply - v. to ask formally for something (such as a job, admission to a school, a loan.) again usually in writing​

scholarship - n. an amount of money that is given to a student to help pay for the student's education

astounding - adj. causing a feeling of great surprise

disregard - n. act of ignoring something

censorship - n. the practice of removing things that are considered to be offensive, harmful, etc.