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Visa Applications Now Require Social Media Account Information
June 10, 2019 at 12:00 AM
by mattenlaw
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The New Requirement

On June 3, 2019 the US Department of State implemented a new policy requiring most nonimmigrant visa applicants to include a list of their social media usernames, email addresses, and phone numbers from the last 5 years on forms DS-160/DS-156 and DS-260. Applicants will select which social media platforms they have used from a drop-down menu and will provide the names or handles listed on their social media accounts (see below). They will not be required to provide passwords. The government will only be able to view publicly available information on an applicant’s social media profile. The State Department implemented this policy for national security purposes stating, “[w]e are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

Even with this new requirement, criteria for visa issuance and denial have not changed. Applicants that are considered risks to national security will be denied admission and applicants that meet the appropriate criteria for entry will be issued visas. Though issuance and denial standards have not changed, this new requirement increases government access to personal information, providing more opportunity for USCIS to scrutinize an application. 

Effects on Visa Applications

Information available on social media posts that indicate an applicant’s intent or desire to move to the US could be used as a grounds of a denial. All applicants are presumed to want to stay in the United States and will not be issued a visa unless they overcome this presumption. To overcome it, they must provide enough evidence in their application that shows they will return to their home country (Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) § 214(b)). 

Social Media posts that show an intent to work in the US

Because the government now has access to more personal information, it may be used against an applicant attempting to overcome this presumption. CNN recently addressed this in an article, noting that students admitted under J visas should be careful on their social media when expressing excitement about studying in the United States or a particular city or state. It could be that this excitement can be interpreted as an intention to stay in the country after graduation, potentially resulting in a visa denial or a probing line of questioning during an immigration interview. Similar concerns could be true of applicants seeking entry for business purposes. Expressing excitement for professional opportunities in the United States could similarly work against an applicant who must overcome the presumption.

“The social media web today is a map of our contacts, associations, habits and preferences”

-Hina Shamsi, ACLU

Social Media posts that show relationships with people in the US

If your public posts or profiles indicate that you have relationships with people living in the US, this could be used as a grounds to deny the visa as well. For example, if you met your girlfriend or boyfriend while they were on vacation in your home country, and now you want to visit them, social media posts could be interpreted as an intention to stay permanently in the US. 

In addition, the government could possibly deny an applicant if they are found to be “friends” with someone who is on a government watch list.

Visa Processing Delays?

Because of the sheer volume of information that the government now has as it makes its visa determination decision, some immigration attorneys are expecting the processing time for visas to increase. It’s possible that more visa applicants will be subject to “administrative processing” so that the government can better assess whether the applicant poses a threat to violate the terms of the requested visa.

Past Social Media Monitoring of Visa Applications

It should be noted that scrutiny of social media accounts is not new phenomena with the federal government. After the San Bernardino shooting where the assailants had communicated their plans over social media, the Obama administration became increasingly interested in social media monitoring to detect threats to national security. As a result, a section was added to visa applications that allowed applicants to voluntarily disclose their social media accounts. The Trump administration prioritized immigration policy and issued a memo in 2017 stating that it was seeking to standardize the vetting process for visa applicants. The social media disclosure requirement is the implementation of that policy.

Critiques of the Policy

Critics of the requirement, like Cyrus Mehta, cite a lack of evidence that social media monitoring is effective in preventing threats to national security. Mehta is also concerned that social media monitoring will chill the filing of visa applications, particularly for people that may have engaged in online political discussions regarding the United States government. Applicants may feel as though their online activities would be a bar to a visa issuance and not apply as a result. Relatedly, the ACLU is concerned that a chilling effect may arise not only in visa applications, but in the exercise of free speech online. 

Hina Shamsi of the ACLU expressed privacy concerns of the policy and stated, “[t]he social media web today is a map of our contacts, associations, habits and preferences. This kind of requirement will result in suspicion of surveillance of travelers and their networks of friends, families and business associates.” Since many people in the networks of visa applicants are US citizens, there is concern that a person’s privacy interests may be infringed as the government looks through visa applicants’ online presence.

Tips for Filing Visa Applications

Though there are critical voices of the policy, there do not seem to be any legal challenges to it. Knowing this, applicants should proceed complying with this requirement and take the following steps:

  • Collect Records: Since the new requirement states that social media accounts from the last 5 years, begin collecting records of current and past social media accounts, email address, and phone numbers before you start filling out the application.
  • Be Truthful in the Application: While filing the nonimmigrant visa form and any supporting documents, be truthful in all answers. According to § 212(a)(6)(C), an applicant can be barred from entering the country if they are found to be misrepresenting a material fact. It is for this reason that an applicant’s visa petition must be truthful and accurate. An applicant’s social media presence should similarly be truthful and non-contrary to the information included on visa application. For business related visas in particular, be sure that professional social media sites, like LinkedIn, accurately reflect current job titles and corresponding job duties. 
  • Update Social Media Presence: Take inventory of all online profiles and what each of them contain, making note of any information that may raise an immigration concern. 
  • Update Security and Privacy Settings: Review and update your social media accounts, paying close attention to the privacy settings and what information is available to the public. As a reminder, honesty is of the utmost importance and hiding online information that could be viewed as a material misrepresentation may result in a visa rejection. 

For more information on visa applications generally and individualized advice on how to proceed with the new requirement, contact us at info@matten-law.com