On September 18, 2017, the Federal Register, the official journal of the U.S. Government, published a new rule calling for the Department of Homeland Security’s collection of social media information on all U.S. visa applicants and immigrants, including permanent residents and naturalized citizens. With implementation slated to start October 18, the rule is set to include “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” as part of people’s immigration files.
Earlier, on May 23, the Office of Management and Budget approved a new three-page questionnaire for U.S. visa applicants worldwide requiring that they submit prior passport numbers, all email addresses, phone numbers and social media handles for the last five years and biographical information for the previous 15 years, including addresses, employment and travel history. This could be problematic for students in Europe. Because travel between European countries is fast and inexpensive, many students may not remember each and every time they went from one country to the next or how long they stayed each time. Worse yet, it is doubtful that the form would provide enough space for the applicant to give a comprehensive account of this information.
Though the survey is said to be for immigrants who are believed to be national security risks, for instance, on account of affiliations with terrorist organizations, the decision regarding which immigrant gets conscripted to complete the survey is subject to the whim of the consular official, and with no oversight.
Nonetheless, these procedures have been criticized by immigration lawyers and advocates. Many have noted that the new questions would be overly burdensome, delay immigration processing and cause unnecessary trouble for applicants who make insignificant clerical errors, fail to remember all the information required of them or both.
The gathering of years of social media content from immigrants is particularly troublesome, especially if the Department of Homeland Security takes a post out of context, even if the post was made by a hacker posing as the account’s user. According to César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law:
“The fact that information gleaned from Facebook or Instagram or other social media networks might not be reliable doesn’t mean that it will preclude DHS from using it as a basis for excluding people from the United States… Folks might share a post on social media that seems ripe for government officials to use as the hook for a conversation that starts to resemble an ideological purity test… Having government oversight with the potential for life-changing adverse consequences when it comes to social media use by prospective immigrants is a pretty direct affront to the longstanding promotion of free speech that’s at the core of the US constitution.”
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.