GOP presidential candidates are threatening to deport international students who they accuse of sympathizing with anti-Israel terrorists. “If you are here on a student visa as a foreign national, and you’re making common cause with Hamas, I’m canceling your visa and I’m sending you home, no questions asked,” vowed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during Wednesday night’s debate.
“To every student who has come to our country on a visa to a college campus, your visa is a privilege, not a right,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said during the same event. “To all the students on visas who are encouraging Jewish genocide, I would deport you.”
Those comments were just the latest salvo in the escalating Republican campaign against immigrants who the right accuses of siding with Hamas, the group that perpetrated the October 7 mass murder in Israel. It’s a trend that is setting off alarm bells for civil liberties advocates, who warn that these proposals risk conflating support for Palestinian rights or criticism of the Israeli government with an endorsement of terrorism. Moreover, they argue, threats of deportation could have a severely chilling effect on free speech and the right to protest.
“It’s a really dangerous rhetoric,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director of Project South, an organization that focuses on racial justice and immigrants’ rights. “This seems to be just another measure that is targeting a particular group of people, in this case immigrants, and using vulnerability in terms of immigration status to try to force people to stay quiet.”
The Republican demands have already gone far beyond typical campaign-trail bluster. In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) urged the Biden administration to “immediately deport any foreign national—including and especially any alien on a student visa—that has expressed support for Hamas and its murderous attacks on Israel.” A week after the October 7 attack, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) introduced a resolution calling on President Biden to “revoke visas and initiate deportation proceedings for any foreign national who has endorsed or espoused the terrorist activities of Hamas” or other anti-Israel terrorist organizations.
“You’re a visitor,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. “You are not even American. You’re a foreign national. You’re here because we gave you a visa to be here temporarily, and now you’re out there defending and supporting Hamas, a terrorist organization? You need to go.”
These calls come as GOP leaders have pressed for even broader immigration crackdowns in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. Last Thursday, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) introduced a bill to revoke the visas of recently arrived Palestinians and expel them from the country. Multiple GOP presidential candidates say the US should reject Palestinian refugees, citing purported concerns about terrorism. In a speech on Saturday, Donald Trump vowed that, if elected, he would implement a new version of his infamous travel ban and mandate “ideological screenings” for immigrants. “If you want to abolish Israel, if you sympathize with jihadists,” he said, “you’re not coming into our country.”
Under all of these GOP proposals, it’s unclear exactly what actions or rhetoric would even qualify as support for Hamas—or how that determination would be made. To justify these measures, Republicans cite a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which says that anyone who “endorses or espouses terrorist activity” is inadmissible to the country. As for what that would mean in practice, lawmakers have pointed to everything from joining a pro-Palestinian rally where the Hamas attacks were celebrated, to signing a letter blaming Israel for Hamas’ attacks, to chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—a contested phrase that some view as a call for Israel’s destruction and others portray as a general cry for Palestinian liberation.
Immigrants’ rights to express controversial ideas are protected by the US Constitution, at least to some extent. “We have pretty clear precedent about how the First Amendment works in the United States,” says Kia Hamadanchy, senior federal policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, “and that applies to more than just US citizens.”
But when it comes to noncitizens, the government does have far more room to retaliate. Over the years, the courts have granted vast authority to Congress and the president to conduct deportations and deny visas. In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a version of Trump’s ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries, even though a lower court had ruled that it was discriminatory. After Trump gave immigration authorities more leeway to pick their targets for removal from the country—taking “the shackles off,” as one official put it—many prominent activists said they were detained or deported after speaking up.
Immigrants are “subjected to this whim of the government to say, ‘You’re in, you’re out,’” says Greg Magarian, a constitutional law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “The government’s latitude over those decisions,” he adds, “is extremely broad.”
That’s exactly what the GOP politicians calling for removals are arguing. “You don’t have a right to come here to this country at all as a foreigner,” said DeSantis last month in New Hampshire. “You don’t have a right to a student visa. That’s what we decide.”
“This is not a matter of free speech,” Rubio insisted in a Fox News op-ed. “It is about abiding by the conditions of their visa—a voluntary agreement between them and the US government.” Those who “incite violence or endorse terrorist activity,” he said, violate those terms.
But given the federal government’s expansive power to define what that means, many immigrants may decide it’s not safe to speak out at all. Some advocacy groups have reported that law enforcement is already increasing surveillance on Palestinian and Muslim communities in the United States, and concerns about doxxing are running rampant in schools and workplaces. With lawmakers calling on universities to, in Rubio’s words, “immediately report pro-Hamas, or related activity, whether on campus or not,” to the Department of Homeland Security, the stakes are even higher.
“If you’re a Palestinian young person who is here on a student visa, who wants to keep studying here,” Magarian says, you might think, “‘What if I just call for a ceasefire, or what if I call for justice for the victims of Israel’s bombing campaign? Does that count as support for Hamas? Well, I don’t know, but it might count if the government wants it to. So I better not say those things.’”
In colleges and universities, which enroll more than a million students from outside the US each year, the absence of noncitizens’ voices would be especially damaging. “College campuses are where we are training the next generations,” says Joe Cohn, a legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit that promotes free speech in higher education.
“It’s there that we expect people to challenge conventional wisdom, to explore the world as we understand it,” Cohn adds. And that’s impossible “in an environment where people can be punished for speaking their minds.”