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Government Monitoring of Immigrants’ Social Media

Oct 28, 2018

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on Sept. 4 that it plans to include a question asking for applicants’ social media usernames on a number of immigration forms. The federal agency said the information will be used to verify applicants’ identities, as well as to help screen out applicants who may pose a national security threat to the United States. The new process only requires applicants’ social media usernames and not their passwords, and it will apply to 9 forms, including N-400 (naturalization form) and Form I-485 (officially called the “Application for Adjustment of Status”).

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DHS caused a great deal of concern when, in September 2017, it issued a Federal Register notice indicating that it will collect and keep information from social media on all individuals passing through the U.S. immigration system.

DHS claimed that it was not actually changing anything, however, and that this notice just codified its current practice of collecting information on immigrants of all kinds.

Whether or not this particular DHS announcement represents a new policy is hard to tell. But it’s certainly true that the U.S. government has a longstanding practice of using publicly available information to decide whether or not to issue a visa—or even whether or not to start deportation proceedings.

Here’s an overview of what you need to know about the government’s social media monitoring of immigrants and visitors to the United States…

A short history of social media monitoring

There is reason to believe that DHS has been monitoring social media to conduct investigations and detect immigration fraud since at least 2008 and possibly earlier. It’s hard to pin down, because the government has been fairly secretive about when it uses social media in investigations and what rules are placed on investigators.

Law enforcement, however, has always been free to use social media as part of investigations of both threats and crimes.

The 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, carried out by a U.S. citizen and his foreign-born wife, raised questions about why the couple’s social media accounts had not been checked when she was applying for a visa. Although there were initial reports that the wife had made public comments supporting violent jihad on Facebook, this turned out to be incorrect: Her comments were made as part of private messages and would not have been revealed in a standard social media check.

Social media monitoring and marriage-based green cards

For years, officers of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have been checking social media accounts to detect immigration fraud, and they continue to do so.

If the USCIS officer or consular officer adjudicating a marriage-based green card application has doubts about the authenticity of the marriage, he or she could check the social media accounts of both relatives to see if their posts are consistent with their overall story.

For example, one immigration lawyer recalled here that one of his clients (the petitioner) was applying for a marriage-based green card for his wife (the beneficiary) …but also had a photo of himself with his girlfriend on Facebook, taken the weekend before the couple’s interview with USCIS. The USCIS officer confronted the couple about the photographic evidence of the husband with another woman.

Myths and realities about social media monitoring

The recent DHS announcement has stirred a debate about mass surveillance of immigrants—that is, the indiscriminate collection of social media data, as opposed to one-time checks of social media accounts as part of a specific visa application. It’s likely that the policy is not new, although it wasn’t previously publicized. This government report from February 2017—which questions the effectiveness of DHS’s social media surveillance of immigrants—would seem to indicate that such monitoring has in fact been going on for some time.

One of the biggest causes of concern is that even naturalized U.S. citizens could be subject to continual government surveillance. DHS has said that this is not true, but that it will keep any social media information it collected before an individual becomes a U.S. citizen. So, for example, if you became a naturalized citizen in 1988, DHS would not have a social media file on you. If you became a naturalized citizen in 2017, however, DHS might have social media information in your file up to the day you became a citizen.

There is still a lot of uncertainty about how DHS chooses and stores the information it collects, but the agency has now stated that it will include search results (which could include the content of social media posts), social media handles, aliases, and “associated information” in an immigrant’s file. It would not be unreasonable to assume that just about everything that is visible to the public on social media is fair game for DHS to collect and save.

What this means for you

It’s tempting to think of social media as just a conversation among friends. But it’s not. A better real-life analogy would be a 1,000-person party—and you’re not in control of the guest list, which may or may not include the media, or law enforcement, or your mother. When you post on social media, you’re taking the stage and grabbing the microphone.

Some social media posts can have real consequences. Your visa application could be denied, or you could be turned away at the border. There are even reports of people who have legal status in the United States being put into deportation proceedings because of their social media posts.

This doesn’t mean that you should immediately delete all of your social media accounts, but here some general best practices:

  • Be aware of your privacy settings and set them to be as restrictive as possible.
  • Understand the different channels of all of the social media platforms you use. For example, posting in a private group on Facebook is far different from posting on your personal page, which could be visible to the general public.
  • Avoid accepting friend requests from people you don’t actually know.

If you are applying for a marriage green card, here are some additional tips for keeping your social media accounts from hindering your application:

  • If you use any platforms that make your “relationship status” public, make sure that this information is accurate.
  • Don’t flirt with anyone on social media who is not your spouse, or do anything else that could create an appearance of infidelity.
  • Be especially cautious about the use of dating apps.

Finally, there are some things you should simply never do on social media. For example:

  • Never make jokes about committing a crime in the United States, being involved with terrorists, or having any intention to harm the United States. In 2012, two British tourists were denied entry, detained, and sent home after one of them tweeted that he was going to “destroy America.” It didn’t matter that this was likely a case of misunderstood slang—the British man was probably not, in his mind, even joking about a crime, but rather just saying he planned to party and drink.
  • Never joke about having deceived the government or any government agency.
  • Don’t post anything on social media that contradicts anything in your visa or US citizenship application.
  • Avoid profanity and the use of aggressive or threatening language.
  • Be cautious about your complaints. Directing profanity-ridden insults towards the U.S. government, USCIS, or specific officers is never a good idea.

Social media makes surveillance relatively easy—not only for the government but also for friends, family, employers and scam artists. Being careful about how you use social media, and understanding the risks of any provocative posts, can help you avoid unpleasant surprises.

If you are applying for a marriage-based green card, learn more about how to prove your marriage is real.

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