WASHINGTON – In an effort to increase security measures for travelers to the United States, the Trump administration is requesting that all U.S. visa applicants submit their social media names, as well as previous email addresses and phone numbers, covering a period of five years. The policy is effective as of June 1. As part of the “extreme vetting” portion of Executive Order 13780, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” the social media policy aims to keep “nefarious” people out of the United States.
The Hill reports that an unnamed official commented, “As we’ve seen around the world in recent years, social media can be a major forum for terrorist sentiment and activity. This will be a vital tool to screen out terrorists, public safety threats, and other dangerous individuals from gaining immigration benefits and setting foot on U.S. soil.”
The original proposal was published in the March of 2018 in the Federal Register of the U.S. State Department. At that time, the department requested comments on the expanded policy which would apply to all visitors to the United States requesting visas. Prior to this policy, the U.S. State Department required that all visitors from areas that the U.S. has designated as “terrorist controlled” to provide all telephone numbers, social handles, and all email addresses that the applicant has used.
Although published in the Federal Register just last year, the Trump administration has been pressing for this proposal for several years.
An earlier proposal floated by former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly included asking visa applicants for access to their social media and email accounts by requesting current passwords. At that time, per NBC News, he told the House Homeland Security Committee, “We want to get on their social media, with passwords: what do you do, what do you say? If they don’t want to cooperate then you don’t come in.”
Kelly noted at that time that increased verification was needed about the background of travelers to the United States.
An even earlier memorandum surfaced discussing the proposal under the previous Obama Administration. In 2011, the administration discussed the recommendation and rejected it. In an internal memo from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. agents would be empowered to review social media accounts, including requesting passwords. The policy was approved but not implemented.
The topic of requesting social media information came into relief after the San Bernardino deadly shootings in 2015. The Obama administration was criticized for failing to access the assailant’s wife’s social media account, wherein terrorist sympathies were professed.
The scope of the current policy change was initially unclear. Until now, the request for such data affected about 650,000 visitors yearly from specific countries. Now it applies to everyone visiting the USA.
The policy applies to “visa applicants,” including temporary visitors. Many foreign nationals visiting the United States do not require U.S. Visas, as they are part of a waiver program. These include most countries in Western Europe, including Scandinavia and the Baltics, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Visitors in special waiver programs must still advise the U.S. of their visits.
As of today, the U.S. State Department’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) now includes requests for social media information. The site states that the data is now being requested and the information “will be kept readily available for three years following your application (whether approved or not). Following this three-year period, the information will be archived for a further 12 years, where it can be accessed by national security and law enforcement agencies.”
Many individuals use their religious names for identification in the community. Moreover, the exposure of religious names – and perhaps even social media profiles – by travelers represents a de facto request for religious affiliation.
Previous arguments have been raised by the Muslim community that targeting specific countries represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Last year, in a split decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Trump v. Hawaii that presidential authority extends to restrictions of specific groups from entering the USA.
Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a complaint against the U.S. government in the Northern District of California. Their lawsuit, filed against the Department of Justice, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the State Department, states that accessing social media information as part of extreme vetting can “lead to the disproportionate targeting of racial and religious minority communities, and those who dissent against government policies.”
“Social media surveillance feeds the discriminatory real world targeting of Black people, immigrants, religious minority communities, and political dissidents. It’s unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.
Disclosing social media account information as well as previous email accounts can have significant impact beyond those on religious communities. The process of disclosing social media information can result in outing members of sexual minorities, who have experienced prior discrimination regarding entry into the U.S.
U.S. Immigration law in 1965 excluded “aliens afflicted with… sexual deviation” from admission into the United States. That included all members of sexual minorities, including those who were gay, lesbian, or transgender.
Homosexuality remained criminalized for years, and immigration officials asked if applicants for visas or naturalization had committed illegal activity. The 22-year ban on HIV+ travelers to the United States was only lifted in 2009.
Members of the trans community may experience the most severe consequences of outing and violence.
The policy implementation comes into extraordinary relief after Johana Medina León, a transgender asylum seeker, died on June 1 at a Texas hospital while in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Diversidad Sin Fronteras (Diversity Without Borders) requested medical attention for Leon while she was held in detention in New Mexico. It is not yet clear whether Medina was impacted by the new policy, as she was in custody for six weeks.
The overall effectiveness of the policy remains questionable as well. Despite applicants experiencing “serious immigration consequences,” it is not clear how USCIS will locate the information if individuals lie on their applications. The policy is effective only if applicants are truthful in divulging their private information, let alone correctly understood by officials vetting the applicant’s information.
“People will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “There is also no evidence that such social media monitoring is effective or fair.”