Freedom of speech has long been a beloved and protected value of the American people. With the rise of social media, U.S. citizens have fostered new, online spaces where they can continue to voice their opinions, stories, and feelings freely and without fear of persecution. However, for immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants outside of the U.S., their voices on social media may be their demise.
As of May 31, 2019, the Department of State’s electronic visa applications now require that applicants provide their usernames from the past five years for a variety of social media websites and applications such as Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Flickr to name a few. Even if their social media accounts have been deleted, applicants are required to disclose them if the accounts existed in the past five years. In addition to sharing their social media information, visa applicants must provide all of their email addresses and phone numbers from the past five years, as opposed to the previous norm of only providing their current contact information. These new requirements fulfill President Donald Trump’s promises to more thoroughly screen foreigners applying to enter the U.S.
Prior to this new policy, social media vetting of visa applicants existed but on a smaller scale. The only visa applicants required to release their social media usernames on visa applications were those who were identified for extra scrutiny, for example, people who had traveled through areas controlled by terrorist organizations. This group of people amounted to roughly 65,000 immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants. The new policy will require social media information from approximately 710,000 immigrant visa applicants and 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants. Even applicants for student and business visas will be required to provide their social media, email, and phone history. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/lealane/2019/06/03/social-media-info-now-required-by-state-department-for-most-u-s-visa-applicants/#335703f24d31). It is not known exactly how the Department of State will choose to utilize this information, nor is it known whether or not this extra vetting will slow down immigrant and non-immigrant visa processing times.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been openly opposed to social media inspection of visa applicants on behalf of the Department of State. In March of 2018, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project stated that the new policy “will infringe on the rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association, particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official.” (https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-comment-state-department-notices-requiring-social-media-information-visa).
Unfortunately, for visa applicants, the ACLU’s fears of the suppression of freedom of speech are becoming a reality. It is recommended that anyone considering applying for a visa or anyone who has close family members or friends applying for visas be extremely mindful of what they post on their social media accounts. Anything a visa applicant or even an applicant’s friend or follower says online can be used against the applicant in a consulate, an embassy, or even at the airport.
Contrary to President Trump’s rhetoric citing foreigners as criminals and terrorists, there is no evidence to support his claims. Even studies done on populations with higher percentages of documented and undocumented immigrants show no causal affect between immigration and crime. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/13/upshot/illegal-immigration-crime-rates-research.html). When it comes to terrorism, mass shooters in the U.S. are most commonly white men who were born in the U.S., not foreigners. Visa applicants wait months and sometimes years so they can legally enter the country, yet the U.S. government insists on monitoring them like criminals, along with asylum seekers and other immigrants attempting to gain lawful status in the U.S. In the administration’s attempt to save American lives and preserve our values, the White House is slandering one of the nation’s most crucial values of all: The First Amendment, freedom of expression.