What should have been one of the best days of his life quickly turned into a nightmare for Ismail Ajjawi, the 17-year-old Harvard freshman from Lebanon.  He flew into Logan International airport in Boston with the aspiration of beginning a Harvard education. However, eight hours after he arrived in the U.S., his visa was revoked, and he was removed from the U.S.  His dream of a Harvard education was shattered without ever setting foot outside of the inspection area of the airport.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has continued to refuse to release details of Ismail’s removal from the U.S.  From what we know from various reports, his removal was largely attributed to social media postings found on his phone and laptop – posting done by his connections or “friends” in social media that appeared on his feed.  Postings that Ismail neither commented on, condoned, or even “liked”.  Yet, CBP found these postings to be anti-American and sufficient to turn this young man away.

It is not new for CBP officers to check visitors’ phones and laptop records.   CBP officers have total access to any international visitors’ electronic devices for good reasons, because they are full of incriminating evidence.  A visitor who claims to come to the US to visit Disneyland will likely be denied entry and charged with misrepresentation if his text message history clearly shows that he plans to get married to a US citizen in the U.S.  Similarly, a tourist visa holder whose emails show work schedules to be performed in the U.S. will also be denied entry.  However, up to the break of Ismail’s story, CBP typically only used social media, text messages, or emails that are directly created by or related to the visitor.  U.S. jurisprudence does not hold one responsible for others’ actions after all.  However, Ismail’s experience indicates that CBP has crossed a new boundary in what they can use against a visitor.

The U.S. State Department has been collecting visa applicants’ social media information since June 2019 (See our Alert dated June 5, 2019). Naturally, the State Department is trying to identify individuals who may pose a threat to the U.S. and should not be issued a visa.  However, Ismail’s refusal at the port of entry shows at least two things:  First, when he applied for his student visa, the State Department had either not sufficiently vetted his social media profile, which represented a failure in the system, or had done so and found him to be not a threat to the U.S. at all, which I believed was more likely the case.   Second, despite the State Department’s assessment, the CBP officer at  Logan International Airport completely ignored the State Department’s finding and extended liability to not just what Ismail posted and acted on, but also what came across his feed – something that he had no control over.

What have we learned from Ismail’s experience?

Social Media can be a liability to U.S. visitors, international students, or nonimmigrant workers.  The State Department requires U.S. visitors to disclose their social media accounts in their visa applications.  That’s the first hurdle.  However, just because the State Department feels that one’s social media footprint is “okay” and issues the visa, social media issues may still surface at the airport.

The impact of this extends beyond individual visitors.   Business travelers or visa employees of U.S. companies also face the same challenge.  A Facebook news feed, regardless of whether it was posted by the visa applicant can now serve as one more barrier for a company’s trusted and reliable worker to  be able to return to the U.S..

This is a dangerous trend, and even the most legitimate visitors may have social media that contains information questionable to CBP.

Must visitors now scrub their social media presence before applying for their visas and entering the U.S.?  That may be too drastic, but it is certainly where it is headed.  However, at the very least, U.S. visitors should be careful of what they post, who they follow, what groups they are associated with, what they “like”, and what they share on social media.  Sadly in Ismail’s case, it was too late.  Harvard’s semester has started. Instead of burying his head in books, he can only bury his head in his hands and imagine what he might have been doing at Harvard.