Harvard Says Incoming Student Stopped at Belarus Airport


UPDATED: July 9, 2020, 12:19 p.m.

Authorities halted a Harvard-bound sophomore at the airport in Minsk, Belarus, lawyer and Harvard Corporation Fellow William F. “Bill” Lee ’72 said in a court hearing Thursday.

On Monday, the federal government released an order barring international students enrolled in universities offering online-only courses from staying in or entering the United States. Harvard had announced just hours before that all its courses will be virtual, a decision that renders its international students subject to deportation.

Yesterday morning, Harvard and MIT announced their plan to fight the order in court, filing a lawsuit in United States District Court in Boston against the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The suit demands a temporary restraining order, as well as preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prevent DHS and ICE from enforcing the new federal guidelines.


Judge Allison D. Burroughs convened a hearing Thursday morning on the motion for a preliminary injunction in federal court in Boston. Lee stressed the urgency of Harvard’s suit during the hearing, citing the Belarusian student’s failure to board his flight to the U.S.

This is not the first time Harvard has clashed with immigration officials over its students. Last August, U.S. officials deported Ismail B. Ajjawi ’23, a then-17-year-old Palestinian resident of Tyre, Lebanon, shortly after he arrived at Boston Logan International Airport at the start of his freshman year.

Before canceling Ajjawi’s visa, immigration officers allegedly subjected him to hours of questioning about his religion and religious practices in Lebanon — at one point leaving to search his phone and computer. After the search, the officer interrogated him about his friends’ social media activity, which expressed political points of view that opposed the U.S., though Ajjawi said he did not personally make any political posts.

Staff from both Harvard and AMIDEAST, a scholarship organization sponsoring Ajjawi’s education, worked with federal officials to bring Ajjawi to campus before classes began early September.

Experts at the time said Harvard’s reputation and University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s personal involvement likely played an essential role in ensuring he could matriculate on time for the fall 2019 semester.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane said Harvard is committed to supporting the student under the “normal processes” it used to support Ajjawi last year.

Correction: July 13, 2020

At a hearing on Thursday, Harvard Corporation Fellow and lawyer William F. “Bill” Lee ’72 said the student who was stopped in Minsk, Belarus, was an incoming freshman. In fact, new documents filed on Monday revealed that the student is actually an incoming sophomore.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.