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Can immigrants threaten a presidential candidate?




Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump pauses with supporters after speaking at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum on Jan. 2, 2016 in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump pauses with supporters after speaking at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum on Jan. 2, 2016 in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Some people do not like presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Few of them have to leave the U.S. altogether.

Egyptian man Emadeldin Elsayed posted about Trump on Facebook, "I literally don't mind taking a lifetime sentence in jail for killing this guy, I would actually be doing the whole world a favor."

Elsayed was in the U.S. on a student visa for a flight training school in El Monte. But that post led to his arrest by immigration authorities, the threat of deportation and now his decision to leave the country voluntarily.

Michael Kagan, professor of law at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, says there are limits to the First Amendment.

"It is a crime to threaten the President or me, for that matter. But the question is if there's reasonable belief the person will act on it," says Kagan. "Statements like the Egyptian student's may be judged as crass, but it's usually been seen as political hyperbole as opposed to an actual threat by the courts."

Kagan believes Elsayed's post could be defensible in court, had the case progressed that far.

He points out that in 2007, singer Ted Nugent said of then-candidate Barack Obama, "He's a piece of s***. I told him to suck on my machine gun."

Nugent was never arrested. 

However, Kagan suspects there is a different reason why Elsayed was detained.

"I actually think that those comments were legal," he argues, "but the fact that it was made by an Arab man made people find it more threatening than say, when a threat is made by Donald Trump or Ted Nugent."

The case is also complicated because Elsayed was neither a U.S. citizen nor a legal permanent resident.

"Free speech is very murky when it comes to immigration," he says. "The Supreme Court has not been crystal clear about the degree to which the First Amendment extends to all immigrants."

They are on shaky ground if they speak out, and Kagan worries that immigrants – legally temporary ones such as Elsayed but also undocumented immigrants – could be punished for being politically active.

"The fact that this person is a foreigner is what allowed the government to push him out and essentially punish him for speech that they probably could not have penalized if it had been said by a citizen."