Ten days after being interrogated for hours by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials and denied entry into the United States, Ismail Ajjawi was admitted into the country Monday. The 17-year-old Palestinian, who lives in a refugee camp in Lebanon, arrived just in time to begin his undergraduate degree at Harvard.
“The last ten days have been difficult and anxiety filled, but we are most grateful for the thousands of messages of support and particularly the work of AMIDEAST [the organization that sponsored Ajjawi],” the family said in a statement. “We hope now that everyone can respect our and Ismail’s privacy and he can now simply focus on settling into College and his important class work.”
Despite having a student visa in hand, Ajjawi was deemed “inadmissible” and barred entry by CBP officials at Boston’s Logan Airport on August 23. The reason, Ajjawi wrote in a statement quoted in the Harvard Crimson last week, was social media posts that friends of his had posted online. “When I asked every time to have my phone back so I could tell [my family] 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.”
Ajjawi’s story ricocheted across mainstream media thanks, likely, to the fact that it involved Harvard University as well as the willingness of its president, Larry Bacow, to intervene. What got less attention is that Ajjawi’s experience is part of a pattern of exclusion of Palestinians wishing to travel to the United States, which has accelerated noticeably in the period since Donald Trump took office.
According to statistics published by the State Department, 53.87 percent of Palestinian Authority (PA) travel document holders were denied a visa to the United States in 2018, a notable rise from 2016, when the number was 40.64 percent. And there are likely far more applications getting stuck in administrative processing, which is what happens when a visa application is flagged for security or other reasons and sent for further examination, which can delay the process significantly. One Palestinian source close to the PA foreign ministry told The Nation that between 10 and 15 Palestinian diplomats have applied for visas over the last year and have received no answers.
Far more notably, in the last few months, there have been a number of high-profile cases of Palestinians’ being denied entry to the United States, among them veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, and Palestinian co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Omar Barghouti. Ashrawi, a longtime member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee and a respected negotiator who has met with every US president since George H.W. Bush (barring the current one), was denied a visa for the first time ever in May. Barghouti—who previously lived in the United States for 11 years and worked, married, and had his first child here—was barred from boarding a plane in Israel back in April, despite holding a non-immigrant visa valid through 2021.
Neither Ashrawi nor Barghouti were given reasons for their visa denials, but, in a Washington Post piece published shortly after she was blocked from visiting the United States, Ashrawi opined: “I suspect it had something to do with my outspoken advocacy on behalf of Palestine and critical assessment of Israeli and recent U.S. violations.” She added that the decision to deny visas to herself as well as others, including Barghouti, appears “to be an attempt to limit our ability to engage with the American public and inform decision-makers and civil society actors.”
At the same time, a number of far less prominent and presumably controversial Palestinians have also been deported after arriving at a US airport or turned away while en route. Two West Bank Palestinian members of the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Combatants for Peace (founded by former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian armed fighters committed to nonviolent action) were turned away, both while holding valid tourist visas. One (who prefers to remain nameless) was prevented by immigration officials from boarding her connecting flight in Turkey last August. The other, Osama Illiwat, much like Ajjawi, had his phone taken away and was interrogated for many hours upon arrival in New York’s JFK Airport in March and turned away. He was never given a reason.
The organization has been sending its members on US speaking tours since 2006. While it has dealt with protracted visa application processes and even some denials in the past, it has never had members with valid visas turned away upon travel, according to Beth Schuman, executive director of American Friends of Combatants for Peace. She said it has become more difficult for people to get approvals, and on the occasions that those approvals are granted, there is no guarantee they will be honored at the border.
“In 2017, one of our activists who was scheduled to speak in the US had his visa stuck in ‘administrative processing,’ and even though the start date of the tour had come and gone, we still had no word on his visa. We reached out to New York Congressman Eliot Engel’s office, and within 24 hours, our activist had a valid visa in hand and was able to come to the US for our events. Today, just a few years later, that same activist has applied for a visa, and Congressman Engel’s office has called homeland security twice now, to try to advocate on his behalf—but to no avail.”
Ajjawi’s own case may well reflect this increasingly challenging landscape. Ajjawi is one of 54 Palestinian students from Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza who are beginning their higher education at US universities this year. They are attending colleges that range from Harvard and Stanford to Bridgewater and Stillman, and they are all supported by AMIDEAST’s Hope Fund, which helps finance academically promising and underserved Palestinian youth to pursue undergraduate education in the United States, with priority given to those living in refugee camps, like Ajjawi.
According to AMIDEAST President and CEO Theodore Kattouf, Ajjawi’s denial was out of the ordinary. “It’s possible students have had similar experiences getting through and haven’t told us, but we have not had a student denied at a US port of entry in recent years.”
As the number of known cases has mounted, so has the question of whether the spate of visa denials and deportations is part of a deliberate policy change directed at Palestinians or, rather, the byproduct of a more generalized attack on travelers from the Middle East.
At least some of those who have been turned away see a clear and deliberate pattern at work. After he was barred entry in the spring, Barghouti told The Nation he believes his exclusion was “based on my political views and human rights activism. It may be a case of Israel’s far-right government outsourcing to its main sponsor and partner in crime, the anti-Palestinian Trump administration, this micro-level repression against human rights defenders in the nonviolent BDS movement for Palestinian rights.”
Thus far, there has been no smoking gun, no leaks suggesting an official US policy change vis-à-vis Palestinians seeking to come to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to several requests for comment. The State Department issued a boilerplate response that “Visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases.”
Nonetheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Trump administration—under Jared Kushner’s leadership—has effectively declared war on Palestinians by giving Israel carte blanche to deepen its control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem; by shutting down the PLO mission in DC; by seeking to redefine Palestinian refugee status; and by its massive cuts in aid to Palestinian hospitals and schools. Among the organizations that have suffered a financial hit from these cuts: AMIDEAST, the group that helped bring Ajjawi to Harvard, which saw its $65 million annual budget slashed by $9 million per year over the next five years—a total loss of $45 million. “Even if you don’t intend for the Palestinians to have a state,” he marveled, “don’t you want their children educated?”
Still, it is difficult to assess whether Palestinians are being targeted more than other Muslims or Middle Eastern applicants, who often face the arbitrary and cruel visa application and screening processes. Indeed, since Trump became president in 2017 and implemented the Muslim ban, the number of visa refusals has jumped significantly. While the Palestinian territories do not fall within the list of nations whose residents are explicitly banned—Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela—advocates suggest that the policy has spilled over to other nationalities.
“CBP officials are certainly emboldened under Trump,” Diala Shamas, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Nation. “We talk about the Muslim ban a lot, and for good reason. But for years, well before Trump, there have been all these other ways of effectively excluding Muslims. Watch-listing, profiling at airports, or indefinite delays on the processing of immigration petitions have all been particularly directed towards traveling Muslims. These are the other, more normalized Muslim bans that we should not lose sight of.”
Tarek Ismail, a professor at the City of New York School of Law who works with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project, suggested that after mass protests against implementation of the Muslim ban at airports in early 2017, the government made a deliberate decision to move the problem out of sight and stop people from landing in the United States in the first place, to avoid the spectacle. This partly explains the sharp rise in visa application refusals, both non-immigrant and immigrant: In 2018, 37,000 applications were turned down, compared with less than 1,000 in 2017.
“The whole national security apparatus is a political apparatus,” Ismail said of the United States. “It is motivated by fear-based incentives, largely fueled by racist presumptions, which give the government permission to completely invade your privacy.”
Ismail then pointed out that accounts of interrogations by immigration officials he has collected from clients mirror the way Israeli border officials operate.
Like the United States, Israel is known for racial profiling at airports and for invasive and protracted searches of visitors of Arab descent. Israel has also increasingly been barring entry or detaining visitors because of their politics. Last year, Israel barred entry to four American civil rights leaders and even briefly detained prominent American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart. Last month, it banned Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country because of their pro-BDS politics. And just last week, Israel stopped its own ambassador to Panama—Reda Mansour, a Druze citizen—who says he and his family were harassed by security guards.
“Based on my personal knowledge and experience,” Ismail said, “in the context of my clients and people who have traveled to Israel, the dynamic is virtually identical.”