A gate to Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is pictured on Jan. 17, 2019.
Jonathan Wiggs—The Boston Globe/Getty Images
By Katie Reilly
August 28, 2019

A 17-year-old Palestinian student set to start his freshman year at Harvard says he had his visa revoked and was sent back to Lebanon because an immigration official objected to his friends’ political posts on social media. Now Harvard is working to help him return to the United States before classes begin next week.

Ismail Ajjawi, 17, told the Harvard Crimson that he was pulled aside when he arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport on Friday. In a written statement to the student newspaper, Ajjawi said an immigration official questioned him about his religious practices and searched his phone and laptop for five hours, before telling him he would be sent back to Lebanon.

“After the five 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 U.S. on my friend[s] list,” he told the Crimson.

“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,” he said. “I have no single post on my timeline discussing politics.”

Harvard officials said they’re working to resolve the issue before classes begin on Sept. 3.

“Regarding our student who was refused entry to the U.S., Harvard is working closely with the student’s family and appropriate authorities to resolve this matter so that he can join his classmates in the coming days,” the university said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Ajjawi grew up in a refugee camp and is planning to study chemical and physical biology, with the goal of becoming a surgeon, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said he had been “deemed inadmissable to the United States.”

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

Citing privacy requirements, the statement did not elaborate on what had rendered Ajjawi “inadmissable.”

Advocates for free speech and immigrants’ rights quickly criticized the decision.

“This is a move so perverse, so grotesque as to defy explanation. 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,” Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, said in a statement. “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.”

The Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigration has affected colleges previously — most notably when President Trump’s 2017 travel ban left many students and professors stranded abroad.

In July, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express his “deep concern over growing uncertainty and anxiety around issues involving international students and scholars,” praising the contributions of international students and faculty.

“They are not just participants in the life of the university; they are essential to it. Their diverse talents, experiences, and insights drive discovery and fuel our work,” Bacow wrote. “Increasingly, visa delays are making these scholars’ attendance and engagement in the university unpredictable and anxiety-ridden. Students report difficulties getting initial visas—from delays to denials.”

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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