Getting into Harvard is hard, but 17-year-old Ismail Ajjawi did it. As a native of Lebanon, he prepared for four years away from home in one of the most elite universities in the world, and boarded a plane for Boston in August. He had been vetted by the U.S. State Department and had his student visa in hand.
Then the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stopped him at the airport. They held him for eight hours, questioned him about his religion, and demanded his laptop and phone and his social media handles. Ajjawi told the Harvard Crimson:
“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.”
He was denied entry and sent back to Lebanon. Not for what he posted. Not for what he said or thought. He was denied entry because of what people on his friends list posted.
Think about that for a minute. Think about the people on your friends lists. Has any one of your friends ever posted “political points of view that oppose the US”?
Ajjawi got lucky: after widespread publicity and pressure from the public, U.S. officials reversed the decision and let him in. He’s starting his first year at Harvard today.
Others are not so lucky. Arizona State University reports that nine of their students—Chinese undergraduates returning after a summer visit home—were denied admission and sent back to China. According to the Arizona Republic, Arizona State University President Michael Crow said the “situation seemed to be similar to the Harvard student, which also involved customs officials looking at electronic devices.”
Remember—these students had already been admitted to the United States. They had already studied at Arizona State University. They were returning from summer break.
International students face immigration hurdles at small colleges as well as at big universities, and at all points during the visa process:
“Cottey College, a women’s college in Nevada, Mo., accepted six students from Ethiopia this year, and officials were disappointed when two of them were denied visas. They were puzzled by the reason: The students, the State Department said, did not have strong enough ties to their home country and might not return.
“At the age of 17 or 18?” Megan Corrigan, international education coordinator for the college, said on Wednesday.”
The time for processing student visas has been increased from 60 to 180 days. Add that to denial of visas, and to denial of entry after a visa has been issued, and it’s not hard to see why international student numbers are declining.