Palestinian teen's deportation at US border shows how America's vision of a free internet has collapsed.
US border authorities have denied a Palestinian student entry into the United States, where he was set to start his studies at Harvard University next week. They refused his visa because of social media posts by his friends that expressed views that “oppose the US,” he told the Harvard Crimson, which first reported the story.
Ismail B Ajjawi, 17, is back home in Lebanon now, after being deported from Boston’s Logan International Airport on Friday, August 23 by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. Ajjawi’s recounting says it was because of what officers found when they searched his laptop and phone, but US authorities have not thoroughly explained the reasons.
“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,” Ajjawi told the Crimson. “After the five 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 is now back in Tyre, Lebanon, uncertain of his fate, a circumstance he shares with millions of other Palestinians. But instead of an Israeli soldier, this time an American border guard is responsible for throwing a Palestinian child’s life into limbo.
Ajjawi had received a scholarship from AMIDEAST, a non-profit group that is now working on trying to reverse the decision by the CBP, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. Refusing Ajjawi entry into the United States is an enormous act of cowardice by DHS that should shame every American. This is the definitive end of any claim to moral leadership over the internet that the US might claim; the American-led digital world order is over.
DHS should reinstate Ajjawi’s visa immediately, and permit him to enter the US to start his courses, which begin September 3rd. Formed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, DHS almost two decades later has come to oversee the institutionalisation of Islamophobia under US President Donald Trump.
In addition to being a moral outrage, keeping aspiring scholars out of the US does not do anything to make America, or anywhere, great. Thousands of foreign students each year earn their degrees in the US and go on to make advancements in science, technology, medicine, literature and other fields.
There are more than a million foreign students in the United States. The Muslims among them can now expect a delusional level of scrutiny from law enforcement when they cross into the US.
Making them worry they will have their lives derailed at the US border over posts by their Facebook friends that “oppose the US” sends a message to the world that Americans have lost the ability to handle even the suggestion of criticism and their border police have become paranoid Islamophobic bigots. This is a sign of immense weakness from federal authorities, and a reflection of a loss of confidence across American society that expresses itself as the willingness to hurt the vulnerable to make themselves feel strong.
Americans, at one time not so long ago, had utopian visions for the ability of the internet to undermine totalitarian regimes, bring disparate cultures and viewpoints together, and make the world a more empathetic, connected place. As the internet aged, that vision faded, rubbed out by US policies after September 11th.
The CBP officer, however, was just following orders, using guidelines opaque to the public, about what consists of opinions hostile to the US. Visitors to the US can be asked to turn over their social media histories, a recent move decried by free speech advocates as a threat to expression and privacy.
Ajjawi himself said that he never posted about politics at all. He also said border officials asked him questions about his religious practices. It is impossible to discount how racism and bias must have played a role in Ajjawi’s treatment in Boston.
There was a brief time that some readers may not remember, in the late 1990s, when the internet seemed to be a thing to make the world a potentially better place. It felt like magic, providing us with the superhuman power to talk to anyone anywhere. Back then, the internet did not seem fated to become a source of conflict, lies, or racism, but rather an avenue for countering them.
Enormous fortunes have been made, but utopia has yet to materialise. The people making money, of course, assert they can’t do much to control what authorities or spy agencies do with the services they provide. This is a world that American engineers, taxpayers, and scientists helped build.
It’s not Facebook’s fault if a CBP official, based on a review of your Facebook friends’ posts, declares you ineligible to enter the US. As this border official’s decision is not being made in open court, Facebook couldn’t help you if they wanted to.
In the meantime, however, Facebook will be able to make money, potentially, selling ads that run alongside a nativist Facebook group in which the CBP agent might be a member. The CBP officer is Facebook’s product, using the social media site to declare a Palestinian teenager a threat, based on paranoid suspicion she likely developed thanks, in part, to Facebook.
Already this summer, investigative reporters uncovered a CBP-officer Facebook group that included racist, sexist, and violent images and dehumanising language about migrants. Although the CBP chief Carla Provost denounced the group after the news broke, it later emerged that she was a member, too. Provost explained that she had only joined to monitor morale among her employees. It is enormously ironic, then, that Ajjawi faces far worse consequences for much more tenuous connection to supposedly objectionable content.
The first stages of digital society were built during a time when Americans were more confident that wiring the world would work out in their favour, and not enable hideous injustices at home and abroad, or become a conduit for deceptive influence campaigns by certain cyber powers to confuse and undermine their enemies.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Russia, China, and the US, too, have all taken the lead in using digital technology to dominate their enemies through deception on a massive scale. In the case of the US, a State Department-funded group shut down operations after it started targeting US journalists for contradicting Trump’s line on Iran.
The dream that the internet would foster more understanding and combat lies seems as distant from 2019 as the worn idols and toppled temples of vanished Bronze Age civilisations. The internet still provides millions of people access to more information than ever, but information is not understanding. The connection does not guarantee empathy. We cannot rely on technology alone to make the world a better place. We need to do it ourselves.
Seeing Ajjawi start his Harvard studies, and ending the broader Muslim travel ban, are good ways to start.
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