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The Department of Homeland Security Starts Analyzing Immigrants’ Social Media Accounts

On September 18, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a new rule in the Federal Register that will allow officials to start collecting social media data from immigrants. The new rule took effect on October 18, 2017, and will apply to all immigrants, including legal permanent residents, naturalized citizens, and green card holders.

What is the new rule?

The new rule covers the collection and inclusion of “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” in DHS’ immigrant files. On September 21, 2017, the DHS issued a notice that its Intelligence Records system will be altered to include public-source data, including social media information, and will gather information from commercial data providers and public sources.

How will the DHS collect social media information?

In May 2017, President Trump approved a new questionnaire that requires visa applicants to disclose the following information:

  • Social media names/handles used in the past five years
  • Phone numbers
  • Email addresses
  • Passport number
  • Biographical information going back 15 years

Although the completion of the questionnaire is voluntary, the language at the bottom of the document states that failure to disclose information may delay or prevent the processing of a visa application.

Will the new rule affect U.S. citizens?

Adam Schwartz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that the new rule is an invasion of privacy for immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. Mr. Schwartz is concerned that the new rule may deter U.S. citizen’s freedom of speech as the DHS will be screening social media interactions not just between immigrants but between immigrants and U.S. citizens as well. He believes that this may have a chilling effect on the relationships between U.S. citizens and immigrants for fear that conversations will not be kept private. In addition, the DHS has already been using social media in suspected fake marriage cases.

How did these social media screenings come about?

According to Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s liberty and national security program, the social media screenings had first begun under the Obama administration. After the December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino California, people became increasingly worried about the role of social media in the radicalization of would-be terrorists and the potential of monitoring social media posts could have in preventing future attacks. The couple responsible for the San Bernardino California shooting had exchanged private messages with one another where they had demonstrated their commitment to jihad and martyrdom.

Following the terrorist attacks, the DHS began to ask immigrants to voluntarily provide social media information. The DHS believes that having access to social media accounts may help the U.S. discover threats of terrorist attacks before they happen. However, in February 2017, a published report from the Office of Inspector General suggested that social media screenings would be ineffective in preventing acts of terrorism.

As immigration policies rapidly transform under the Trump administration, it is important that non-citizens consult an experienced immigration attorney who will inform them of their legal rights and available pathways to legal residence or citizenship. The New York City immigration lawyers at Bretz & Coven, LLP have a long history of zealous, knowledgeable, and honest advocacy on behalf of immigrants. For more information or to schedule a consultation, contact our New York City immigration lawyers at (212) 267-2129.

Immigration Consequences of Criminal and Fraudulent Conduct
The immigration consequences of criminal or fraudulent conduct can be harsh and often illogical. Even a very minor offense could have a dramatic immigration consequence, including deportation, detention without bond, being denied naturalization, a visa or re-entry into the United States. Likewise, the use of fake or fraudulent documents, aliases, and other misrepresentations can have similar immigration consequences. Kerry Bretz and Bretz & Coven have been counseling non-citizen criminal defendants, as well as their lawyers, for over 20 years. We have a long history of strategizing deportation and removal defenses, as well as applications for waivers, in very complicated cases.

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