An intriguing article came out last week in the New York Times regarding the use of social media by the Department of Homeland Security to identify and root out potential terrorists. According to the article, the DHS is considering new policies to scrutinize the social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) of potential visa applicants and those seeking refugee or asylum status here in the US. Interestingly, DHS already has four pilot projects, one of which has been active since December, and which examines the social media accounts of those wishing to enter under a fiancé or K-1 visa, which was the type of visa that the San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik had entered the country on. Moreover, USCIS already scours the social media of Syrian refugees when the applicant is flagged for something, whether due to a hit in a security background check or due to questions raised by an immigration officer.
Notwithstanding the logistics of incorporating social media into what is already an inherently subjective vetting process, the writing is on the wall: this is where we are headed and nothing is really off limits in this digital age. There is an incredible amount of information out there on the web about everyone, whether true or not. To practitioners in the field, this really comes as no surprise. While the article discusses implementing social media analysis as a standard part of the screening process, the reality is that there is nothing prohibiting immigration officers from looking at social media accounts of applicants already here in the US, if they felt inclined to. It’s not a regular or standardized procedure, so far as we know, but like anyone else in an office environment, immigration examiners have computers and access to the internet. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram, to name a few, can reveal a surprising amount of information about an individual including work history, relationship status, places visited, and social circles. An officer could easily turn to such sources to confirm information, as well as discover contradictory information about an applicant applying for some sort of immigration benefit. For example, if an individual is claiming that he/she is working for Employer A on Form G-325A but his/her LinkedIn profile indicates that employment with Employer B, an immigration officer will naturally have questions about the accuracy of the information, if not the applicant’s veracity. Of course, at the present time, we can only assume that officers can only access public posts and information revealed on such sites, but the point is that applicants should be cognizant.
Opponents cite many concerns. The danger, some say, is that posts on social media can be interpreted any number of ways. Inspection can lead to further intrusion and monitoring. There is also a potential chilling effect on free speech, out of concern that an opinion or expression may be misinterpreted or taken out of context. Additionally, increased vigilance in this media, however well intentioned, may have the unintended effect of slowing down a laborious process that is already saddled with backlogs. However one comes down on this issue, it just brings to the forefront how much our society is evolving and how much technology can impact our identity. One would think that Facebook has little to do with immigration, but as can be seen, your “friends” and “status” can potentially have a lot to do with whether the government grants you status.