New regulations from the U.S. Department of State may require all visa applicants - including those applying for simple tourist visas - to provide their social media accounts on their visa application forms. Many are left wondering why the Administration is asking for this extra information on standard visa applications, and what might it mean for potential applicants?
On March 30, 2018, the US Department of State published a notice of proposed amendments to the DS-160 and DS-260 forms - forms which are required in all immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications.
The amendments included additional questions which would require visa applicants to list all social media accounts that they have had over the previous five year period. While the specific platforms were not noted in the proposal, it's likely that the most popular social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, SnapChat and China's very popular Sina Weibo microblogging site, will most likely all be on the list.
The forms will also provide the option for visa applicants to voluntarily turn over social media accounts not explicitly asked for by the government should they so desire.
On top of the social media requirement, applicants would also be asked to provide their telephone numbers, email addresses and travel history for the past five years. They would be required to say if they had ever been deported from a country, or if any relatives had been involved in terrorist activity.
Countries that are part of the visa-waiver program would not be affected by the new requirements.
The Administration's proposal stops short of requiring passwords or direct access to social media accounts, but the requirement to disclose one's social media history has raised many questions regarding the balance between information privacy and national security.
Proponents of the new measures are typically in favor of increased national security, and say that the increased scrutiny would help to identify potential extremists seeking entry to the U.S.
Prior to 2015, the U.S. generally did not permit officials to check social media postings of applicants due to civil liberty concerns. After the shootings in 2015 in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people died, policies changed. Authorities said they had missed signs of radicalization of the attackers in messages on a social media messaging platform, in effect supposing that the attack could have been stopped had the authorities been monitoring social media accounts.
Since that time, social media accounts have undergone more scrutiny in immigration applications.
Last May, the Administration officially began to allow visa officers to request social media account information, prior passport numbers, greater detail about family members and longer personal history, including travel, employment and residence history for the last 15 years, in addition to the previous five years of information that applicants were required to submit.
A State Department spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, Virginia Elliot, saw the new screening standards as a simple adaptation to new technologies.
"Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats," Ms. Elliott told ABC News. "Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."
Still, many are worried about the implications of the proposed changes, due to the current political climate and the Administration's harsh stance on immigration.
The American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern, saying the move would have a “chilling” effect on the freedom of speech and association.
“People will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official,” Hina Shamsi, director ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement reported by Reuters.
“We’re also concerned about how the Trump Administration defines the vague and overbroad term ‘terrorist activities’ because it is inherently political and can be used to discriminate against immigrants who have done nothing wrong,” said Shamsi.
In an opinion piece appearing in The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi, a brand strategist based in New York, argued that "while the proposal may be directed at visitors, it also sends a message to residents and citizens that you ought to watch what you say online."
The proposed changes would affect about 14.7 million people annually, including those who apply as students, business travelers, and tourists. With all the minutia involved in social media, and multiple accounts to screen, there are concerns about increased processing times that would only add to an already overabundant visa-backlog.
Currently, the proposed amendments are open to public comments through the 29th of May. After that date, the rule could be implemented if approved by the Office of Management and Budget.
While these new rules would very likely further diminish already falling tourism numbers, it would not be surprising to see them implemented given the current Administration's take on immigration. One could only hope that reasonable judgment would be exercised by any consular officer to avoid misunderstandings.
If you have any questions about social media and its role in visa processing, or if you'd like guidance through your own immigration journey, please contact us and we'll be happy to help.