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Deporting Harvard Students Was Always the Goal

Trump's anti-immigration policies were introduced with talk of "rapists" and "murderers," but that was just a pretext to come after the rest.

Christopher Gregory/Getty

For Ismail Ajjawi, this should be orientation week. A Palestinian student living in Lebanon, Ajjawi was awarded a scholarship to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts by AMIDEAST, a nonprofit organization founded in 1951 with the goal of providing cross-cultural and educational opportunities for those in the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States. But Ajjawi isn’t in Cambridge; he’s back in Lebanon.

According to a letter he sent the campus paper, The Harvard Crimson, when Ajjawi arrived at Boston Logan International Airport on Friday, he and a group of fellow international students were stopped by immigration officers. While the rest of the students were eventually cleared and allowed to enter the United States, Ajjawi was held back and questioned about his religion. He was then asked to unlock and turn over his phone and computer.

After detaining him and reviewing his electronics for several hours, officers, Ajjawi wrote, proceeded to berate him because of social media posts they found on his phone—not posts written by Ajjawi, but ones that were written by others and simply appeared on his timeline.

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. 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.

Currently, the only Twitter account found associated with Ajjawi’s name follows only the accounts of WWE wrestlers; there are a multitude of Facebook accounts sharing the name, none identifiably belonging to Ajjawi.

Ajjawi was ultimately allowed to call his parents before immigration officials canceled his student visa and put him on a plane back to Lebanon. When contacted by the Crimson and other news outlets, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Michael McCarthy offered only the following vague explanation for Ajjawi’s deportation: “This individual was deemed inadmissible to the United States based on information discovered during the CBP inspection.”

Amid the ongoing waves of heartbreaking deportation stories made public in the past two years, Ajjawi’s story stands out for several reasons—the fact of Ajjawi being a Harvard-admitted student chief among them.

Matt Segal, legal director at the ACLU of Massachusetts, pointed to the beliefs underpinning Trump’s chilling anti-immigrant rhetoric. “This story, if accurate, would confirm our worst fears about current immigration policy and border searches: that they will be used not to improve America’s security, but instead to impose Trump’s ideology,” Segal wrote in a statement to TNR.

Sarang Sekhavat, the Federal Policy Director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) echoed the ACLU’s sentiments. “That this happened to Mr. Ajjawi is deeply disappointing but not surprising and is a natural extension of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies that President Trump has espoused since the launch of his campaign,” Sekhavat wrote in a statement. “Boston has many world-renowned educational institutions that not only provide a first class education to people from all over the world, but also serve as a form of soft power to increase our nation’s standing and reputation in parts of the world that would otherwise have little contact with all that the US has to offer. The actions taken by this administration and amplified by individual officials without oversight create a chilling-effect on those who would otherwise seek out American institutions to further their education and pose a significant threat to global development and American standing.”

As pointed out by both MIRA and the ACLU, Ajjawi’s case represents the collision of a number of federal immigration policies, not all of which can be directly pinned on Trump’s executive actions and racist rhetoric. The idea that immigration officials were able to stop Ajjawi, comb through his personal electronics—the Crimson story infers he provided them permission—and deport him because of messages he never posted himself is straight out of the Patriot Act playbook. And in some respects, President Barack Obama and the prior enabling Congresses must share some of the blame, as well. Still, there exists a sense of dark irony and disconnect between Trump’s core message of “They’re not sending their best” and Ajjawi’s story.

While there’s room for debate over the amount of weight granted to certain “elite” higher education institutions in American culture, a student accepted to Harvard on scholarship that hails from overseas appears on all counts to classify as “their best,” regardless of who “they” is meant to encompass. But then again, to read Trump’s recent “merit-based” immigration proposal in good faith would be to ignore every other flashing sign he’s offered, such as the 2018 crackdown on student visas that threatened three- and ten-year bans on reentering the country for those who overstayed their visas beyond six months. The deportation of people like Ajjawi is entirely the goal.

It was the goal when ICE established a fake university to trap and then deport over 600 immigrants. It was the goal for Ananya, a college student from wealthy India-born parents who was raised in America, who wrote in The Nation this April about being barred from holding a job and advancing in her field because of the archaic U.S. immigration system. It was the goal for the 18 unnamed University of Oklahoma international students who faced deportation when they couldn’t afford their bursar fees. It was the goal for Evana Akter, a college student and nursing hopeful who was forced to abandon her promising career and return to Bangladesh when her father was deported last year.

To Harvard’s credit, since being alerted to the situation, the university has committed itself to getting Ajjawi on campus by the start of classes on September 3, issuing a statement saying that the school is working to ensure Ajjawi “can join his classmates in the coming days.” And because it’s Harvard and because it’s now a high-profile case, chances are that Ajjawi will be allowed back in the country and will join his classmates at some point this fall. But don’t be fooled when the headline drops into your timeline announcing this victory. There are hundreds or likely thousands more just like him, and this administration still hopes to deport them all.