UPDATED: Aug. 27, 2019 at 10:11 a.m.
While most Harvard freshmen settle into their dorms Tuesday, one new student, Ismail B. Ajjawi ’23, faces ongoing negotiations with immigration officers to allow him to enter the United States and study at the College.
U.S. officials deported Ajjawi, a 17-year-old Palestinian resident of Tyre, Lebanon, Friday night shortly after he arrived at Boston Logan International Airport. Before canceling Ajjawi’s visa, immigration officers subjected him to hours of questioning — at one point leaving to search his phone and computer — according to a written statement by Ajjawi.
University officials are currently working to resolve the matter before classes begin on Sept. 3, Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an email.
“The University 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,” he wrote.
Harvard both employs immigration lawyers at the Office of the General Counsel and staffs the Harvard International Office. Both groups work to resolve visa-related problems like Ajjawi’s. Ajjawi wrote that he has been in contact with HIO Director of Immigration Services Maureen Martin.
Ajjawi wrote that he has also contacted AMIDEAST, the non-profit organization that awarded him a scholarship to study in the U.S., which is now providing him legal assistance.
A State Department official declined to comment specifically on Ajjawi's case as visa records are confidential under U.S. law. U. S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Michael S. McCarthy wrote in an emailed statement that CBP found Ajjawi "inadmissible" to the country.
"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," McCarthy wrote. "This individual was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”
Ajjawi wrote that he spent eight hours in Boston before he was required to leave. Upon arrival, Ajjawi faced questioning from immigration officials along with several other international students. While the other students were allowed to leave, Ajjawi alleges an immigration officer continued to question him about his religion and religious practices in Lebanon.
The same officer then asked him to unlock his phone and laptop, and left to search them for roughly five hours, Ajjawi alleges. After the search, the officer questioned him about his friends’ social media activity.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
Ajjawi wrote that he told the officer he had not made any political posts and that he should not be held responsible for others’ posts.
“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 wrote. “I have no single post on my timeline discussing politics.”
The officer then canceled Ajjawi’s visa, informed him he would be deported, and allowed him a phone call to his parents.
Though Ajjawi’s situation is rare among Harvard undergraduates, in 2017 four graduate students faced similar challenges due to a then-effective travel ban instituted by the Trump Administration. Those students eventually entered the U.S. after weeks and months in limbo, and the University warned international students not to leave the country.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow also waded into the national debate over immigration policy earlier this year. In July, he penned a letter to United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting United States Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan to share his “deep concern” about the federal government’s approach to immigration policy.
Bacow’s letter specifically cited visa challenges Harvard affiliates like Ajjawi face, in the form of both delays and denials.
Ajjawi, who has since returned home to Lebanon, wrote that he is in touch with a lawyer and hopes to resolve his visa issues so he can arrive this week before classes start next Tuesday.