United States: visa in good standing, they are turned back at the airport because of messages received … on Whatsapp or Facebook


"PASSPORT PLEASE" – Despite his visa in good standing, a foreign student enrolled at Harvard was denied entry to the US last week. The reason ? Messages received in a WhatsApp group. A case far from isolated.

When he lands at Boston Airport on August 23, Ismail Ajjawi can imagine a bright future. The only 17-year-old Palestinian living in Lebanon comes to the United States to pursue higher education. He arrives student visa in his pocket, but most importantly, he is registered at Harvard, the cream of the crop of theIvy League, to study biology. A near miracle made possible by the Hope Fund, a scholarship reserved each to some Palestinian high school students at the exceptional level.

Eight hours later, the same Ismail Ajjawi, handcuffed, is brought on the plane back to Lebanon. His entry into the United States was refused. His student visa has even been canceled. Reason displayed: messages found on his phone, status, images from his social networks, which the young man was not the author.

The phenomenon is recent, and if we do not know the exact number, the examples are legion: today, many travelers, yet in good standing, are refused the entry of the United States, because of the content of their smartphone or messages exchanged on their social networks. From photos posted on Facebook to tweets sent in public to emails or private messages exchanged on WhatsApp or Messenger, the online presence of each traveler can affect more and more the decision of immigration officers to obtain a visa , even on arrival in the United States.

As Ismail Ajjawi recounts, his story is a textbook case: when he arrived, he was interviewed by an immigration officer, about his family, about his religious practices. Above all, he was asked for his smartphone and his computer. He then waited five hours for their content to be exploited. During the interrogation that followed, he was criticized for the "anti-American" character of certain messages received in a group on WhatsApp. The young man protested his innocence and explained that he was not the author of any of these messages, his visa was revoked. For his lawyer, Abed Ayoub, the procedure would become common, it would be the consequences of "Muslim Ban" decreed by Donald Trump upon his arrival at the White House.

Since last spring, to travel to the United States, all visa application or ESTA – the authorization of travel to solicit online, mandatory for tourists, especially French- requires to list his accounts on social networks. A list that must be exhaustive for all those used over the last five years. We do not know how much visa or ESTA are refused on the basis of the content found on these social networks. But we now know that neither guarantee entry into the United States. In all cases, what matters is the opinion of the immigration officer who will control you on arrival.

If the case of Ismail Ajjawi is speaking, he is far from being the only one, even among the students admitted to the elite of American universities. Last June, even before this case, the Harvard president publicly expressed concern about the treatment of foreign students, both for their visa applications and their arrival in the United States, in a letter to Mike Pompeo, head of the ministry. Foreign Affairs.

Beyond the "Muslim Ban", what is controversial is the ability of immigration officers to search the contents of your connected devices In the United States, many people are against what they consider it an abuse of power. Having free access to the content of a smartphone is often having an overview of the life of its owner: messaging, photos, location, social networks, bank accounts, all accessible and collected on the same screen. And refusing to give a password or unlocking your smartphone is not a winning strategy. This can be reason enough to deny entry.

On paper, without a judge's order, the US Constitution forbids anything that would be considered "unreasonable searches and seizures". A qualification that would seem to apply logically to the smartphone search. But the passport control area seems impervious to the rule. A rule that will not change in time to solve the case Ismail Ajjawi. A Harvard spokesperson says the university is doing everything it can to get the student back to Boston in time for September 3.

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