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Welcome to America? Not if you (or your friends) are critical of the US government

Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, teleSUR, RBTH, The Calvert Journal and others. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ
Welcome to America? Not if you (or your friends) are critical of the US government
Is the American dream still alive? The deportation of a Palestinian teen and would-be Harvard freshman allegedly over anti-US comments posted by his friends online suggests that the question is not unreasonable.

Ismail Ajjawi, 17, was deemed "inadmissible" by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), had his visa cancelled and was put on a plane back to Lebanon. CBP cited “information discovered” during questioning as the reason.

They must have found something truly terrible, right?

In fact, Ajjawi claims immigration officials questioned him for hours, searched his devices and eventually pointed to “political points of view that oppose the US” expressed by his friends on social media as the problem. Ajjawi protested that he did not like, share or comment on the offending posts and said he should not be “held responsible” for the opinions of others.

Also on rt.com Palestinian Harvard freshman barred from entering US over Facebook posts his FRIENDS made

This seems a most reasonable suggestion, but we are living during an era in which it is increasingly common to find ourselves penalized for the crime of wrongthink. The next step on our path toward Orwellian nightmare, it appears, is being convicted for the thought crimes of others.

We should have seen this coming.

New rules implemented as part of the US State Department’s “extreme vetting” require visitors to the US to provide their social media information – a process described as “vital” to help screen out terrorists. Or, as it now appears, teenagers with the wrong opinions. Activists warned social media vetting would “unfairly target immigrants and travelers from Muslim-majority countries” – and Ajjawi claimed officials also questioned him about his religion.

It’s worth asking some questions about how the determination regarding Ajjawi was made: What guidelines were the CBP officers following? Which opinions are deemed acceptable, and which – bar displaying outright terrorist sympathies – are deemed bad enough to declare an individual inadmissible? 

Even if immigration officials did find some questionable posts or anti-US government sentiment, is social media actually an effective method of filtering out undesirables? Isn’t it all a bit Big Brother-esque to equate criticism of the government with harboring general negative intent toward Americans?

There is “no evidence that such social media monitoring is effective or fair, especially in the absence of criteria to guide the use of social media information in the visa adjudication process,” according to Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Here’s another question: If this standard – banning on the basis of friends’ social media activity – was more broadly applied, would there be any Europeans successful in their visa applications?

Which brings us right back to the fact that Ajjawi is a Palestinian.

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A ProPublica investigation earlier this year uncovered a secret Facebook group for over 9,000 CBP officers, in which many shared cruel and derogatory comments about immigrants. Regardless of one’s stance on the immigration debate, the comments displayed a worrying trend among agents for dehumanizing immigrants. Viewed in this light, it is not unreasonable to suggest CBP’s decision to deport Ajjawi could be rooted in a kind of worsening institutional xenophobia. 

With Trump’s unbridled support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constantly on display these days, it is also not outside the bounds of reason, to wonder about potential Israeli influence over such a seemingly nonsensical immigration decision. 

Weeks ago, American Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (the latter being of Palestinian origin), were briefly denied entry to Israel based on their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It’s worth remembering at times like this, that Omar and Tlaib have been absolutely correct to warn about Israel’s outsized influence in American political life.

Remember: You can now lose your job for refusing to condemn the BDS movement. Public college students in Florida (and perhaps soon New Jersey, too) are prohibited from “demonizing” Israel under a new law which equates criticism of Tel-Aviv with “anti-Semitism.”

The Ajjawi story has also highlighted the fact that some of social media’s biggest free speech and anti-censorship advocates can be decidedly selective when choosing who should enjoy that freedom. Conservative Jewish pundits like Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder, for example, are happy to cast themselves as crusaders for free speech in America — unless the injured party is a Palestinian.

When the Trump administration claims it wants the “best and the brightest” immigrants coming to America, it looks like scholarship-winning, Harvard-bound Palestinians are out, too. 

What does it say about the US — where political figures have hailed the internet as a driver of freedom in oppressive regimes around the world — that it now can’t even handle criticism from Palestinian teenagers?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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