The Trump administration has explained that its so-called “extreme vetting” program is intended to bar individuals from the United States based on their attitudes toward this country. It is the fulfillment of a campaign promise to resurrect a cold war–era “ideological screening test” for admission into the United States. If the growing number of activists who have been denied admission or removed from the country in recent months is any indication, that test is tricky to pass.
Hours after landing in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Yassmin Abdel-Magied was on a flight back to London. Border agents reportedly pulled her aside upon arrival, took her cellphone, and – following a minutes-long review of her case – canceled her visa and denied her entry into the country.
A prominent Muslim Australian activist, Abdel-Magied was scheduled to speak at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, including at one event prophetically titled The M Word: No Country for Young Muslim Women. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) claimed Abdel-Magied was traveling on the wrong visa, though she had traveled to the United States on the same visa for similar events in the past.
Without more information, we can’t say definitively that CBP’s justification for turning Abdel-Magied away was pretextual. But her experience aligns with those of other activists, artists and experts who have been denied entry into the United States in recent months.
Earlier in April, a Toronto-based Syrian trans activist named Ziva Gorani was reportedly denied a visa to speak at an LGBTQ conference in New Jersey. In February, the producer of the Academy Award nominated film Last Men in Aleppo, Kareem Abeed, was denied a visa to attend the ceremony. And in January, the Iran-born and London-based neuroscience PhD student Arman Eshaghi was denied entry to the United States to participate in a scientific conference.
American activists, too, have confronted increased government scrutiny at the border. Also this month, border agents interrogated the journalist and civil rights advocate Shaun King upon his return from a family trip to Cairo. Along with his exhausted wife and children, King fielded questions about his reasons for traveling to Egypt and his role in the Black Lives Matter movement. King reported that the officer who questioned him had “clearly been reading my tweets and knew all about me.”
It is the fulfillment of a promise to resurrect a cold war–era "ideological screening test" for admission into the US.
And there is mounting evidence that even within U.S. borders, non-citizen activists now face a significant threat of deportation in retaliation for their advocacy on issues relating to immigration. Ravi Ragbir, Jean Montrevil, Maru Mora-Villalpando, and Alejandra Pablos are among a growing number of activists whom U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has targeted in the past few months.
Several of them were detained after they attended demonstrations or made public comments about immigration issues. An ICE document on Mora-Villalpando, who was detained after speaking to the media, noted her “extensive involvement with anti-Ice protests and Latino advocacy programs.”
These recent incidents are part of a broader government scheme to wield immigration authority to silence activists both within and beyond the U.S. borders. CBP and ICE agents conduct suspicionless searches of travelers’ electronic devices –including their text messages, emails, social media posts, and photographs – when they cross the U.S. border. Under the rubric of “extreme vetting”, the administration now plans to require immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants to surrender their social media handles, including pseudonyms and aliases, in connection with their applications.
It has also contracted for the creation of an automated program that will scan social media and other websites to generate at least 10,000 “investigative hits” per month, which may lead to visa revocations and deportations. Finally, it retains records of individuals’ social media and other online activities within the files used to inform immigration determinations.
Thus, from the time a non-citizen applies for a visa to her arrival at the border, through her time spent in the United States, the government will be collecting and storing her social media information, possibly scouring her private electronic communications, and continuing to monitor her expressive activities online – and the results of this surveillance may eventually trigger removal proceedings against her.
These extreme vetting measures threaten to chill the expressive and associative activities of any individual who may seek to enter or remain in the United States. Required disclosure of social media handles, including pseudonyms and aliases, deprives individuals of the ability to speak and associate privately or anonymously. Suspicionless searches of travelers’ personal or professional devices at the border represent a gross intrusion not only into their privacy, but into their communications and affiliations as well.
Moreover, the exclusion and removal of activists and other individuals invited to speak in the United States, like Abdel-Magied, denies American audiences the opportunity to hear from diverse viewpoints around the world – a right that the first amendment presumptively protects. (To understand the full first amendment implications of the extreme vetting program, the Knight Institute is litigating a Freedom of Information Act request for records regarding the government’s exclusion of individuals from the country based on their speech, beliefs, or associations.)
Just as the travel ban effectively excludes individuals from this country on the basis of their religion, extreme vetting explicitly excludes individuals from this country on the basis of their statements and beliefs. This is censorship under the guise of immigration enforcement. The public has a right to know how the administration is conducting its new ideological screening test, and at what cost to the broader public discourse.
Carrie DeCell is a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute.