On February 3, months after Donald Trump announced his intentions to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, 24-year-old Emad El-Sayed logged onto Facebook. He posted a photo of Trump, along with a comment suggesting he "wouldn't mind serving a life sentence for killing this guy," and that in doing so, he'd be "doing the world a favor."
El-Sayed, who is Muslim and Egyptian, was in the United States on a student visa, and was studying at the Universal Air Academy in Los Angeles. When the flight academy saw the post, it reported him to federal officials and revoked his I-20, the document showing school support for a student visa. Without his I-20, his student visa was null, and he was in violation of his terms of admission to the United States.
While the post hardly seems like a legitimate threat, jokes in poor taste posted on social media have, in many cases, jeopardized immigrants' legal status in the United States.
"Immigration officers are absolutely looking at social media," said Danielle M. Claffey, an immigration attorney for Kuck Immigration Partners in Atlanta, Georgia. "We've come to realize that, when it comes to immigration issues, the government will definitely use social media to investigate an individual."
Claffey said that five years ago, social media wasn't on her radar in terms of immigration. But today, as the internet becomes increasingly interlaced with security threats and terrorism, it comes up in every part of immigration investigations.
Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney in Buffalo, New York, told me immigration officers "routinely review social media in making assessments of eligibility for immigration status, or alternatively, if they are planning on charging someone with a violation of immigration law."
Mostly, they're looking for evidence of fraud, inconsistencies in someone's testimony, or illegal activity. According to Kolken, even something like a photo on Facebook showing someone doing illegal drugs can be grounds to deny someone's visa application. "I've seen that happen in the past, where the client had pictures of illegal activity" he told me. "The government brought print-outs from social media into court."
"If an American citizen made a similar comment—and I'm sure many have—those comments aren't a problem." — Danielle M. Claffey
As for immigrants who are already in the United States, El-Sayed isn't the first to have his immigration status challenged because of a threat made online. In December 2014, Keshav Mukund Bhide, a 24-year-old from India, was deported after he posted on Google+ about planning a campus shooting at the University of Washington. Earlier this month, Hanxiang Ni, a 22-year-old Chinese student at the University of Iowa, was deported because of a post on Weibo, which, according to the Daily Iowan, threatened to "let [his] professors experience the fear of Lu Gang." (Lu Gang, a Chinese graduate student, was the shooter in a 1991 campus shooting at the University of Iowa.)
With cases of security, though, it's not always clear what constitutes a legitimate threat and what's just a joke. In 2012, a pair of Irish tourists were denied entry to the United States after one of them tweeted: "Free this week for a quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?"
El-Sayed, for his part, told reporters that what he wrote on Facebook was just "a stupid post," without any real threat attached. But immigration attorneys say the line between a joke and a threat is razor thin.
"I've seen things like this rise to the level where [it is treated as] an alleged terrorist threat," said Claffey of posts made on social media that can be interpreted as terrorism. "It's unfortunate in the immigration context, because if an American citizen made a similar comment—and I'm sure many have—those [comments] aren't a problem."
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El-Sayed's case is complicated by the fact that he was enrolled in a flight academy, many of which have been on high alert since 9/11 hijackers learned to fly planes at American flight schools.
"[Flight schools] were really under the microscope for several years after 9/11, because of who they admitted to their schools," said Gregory Siskind, an immigration attorney. "I can kind of understand why a flight school might be hypersensitive to those kinds of statements, but I think that it was probably an overreaction," said Siskind, who added that, to him, El-Sayed's post "just sounded like political commentary."
Siskind and other immigration attorneys I spoke to reiterated that anything their clients post on social media can be used against them. Kolken said immigrants and those seeking entry to the United States shouldn't do anything illegal that would jeopardize their immigration status, and "if they put something on the internet, it's forever and it can be potentially used against them."
In a hearing today, El-Sayed's legal team requested a voluntary departure, which would allow him to leave the United States without the black mark of deportation on his record. That requested was granted, and a representative from his attorney's office confirmed that he will soon board an Egypt Air flight back to Cairo.
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