Reuters: “Trump Administration Approves Tougher Visa Vetting, Including Social Media Checks”

by Joseph McKeown

The Trump administration has approved new questions for certain US visa applicants worldwide that ask for social media handles for the last five years as well as biographical information going back fifteen years. The more extensive vetting was implemented as a "temporary, 'emergency' measure in response to President Trump’s March 6 memo mandating enhanced visa screening.” Under the new guidelines, certain applicants will be asked to provide US consular officials with such information as their passport numbers, travel history and source of funding for all trips that took place within the past fifteen years, employment history and residential addresses from the past fifteen years, the names of all spouses or partners, regardless of if they are living or deceased, and names and birth dates of all siblings and children. In addition, applicants will be asked to provide their user names and handles for all social media accounts that they have used within the past five years. Although providing this information is voluntary, the questionnaire explains that failure to provide such information could potentially delay or prevent visa processing.

Immigration advocates have criticized these additional security questions. Faiz Shakir, the national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), issued a letter requesting that the additional questionnaire for visa applicants be immediately revoked. The ACLU states that the additional questionnaire is “overly broad and burdensome” and infringes upon both the applicants’ right to privacy and freedom of speech and any US citizens these applicants are in contact with. Shakir says that the review of social media accounts will not prevent dangerous people from entering the US. “Those who are actually engaged in terrorism will simply take additional steps to hide their communications, making this information collection ineffective,” he writes.

Betsy Lawrence, the head of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), also criticized the increased vetting by stating that the requested information is not always easy to document and is likely to discourage many applicants, including business men and women, students, and tourists, from visiting the US because a simple mistake or error could “create a false suspicion of fraud.” She also questions its potential effectiveness. “Certainly, national security is incredibly important,” Lawrence tells the Washington Post. “But there are already screening protocols in place, and we have seen significant delays for legitimate travel to the United States for family or work purposes. This might create even greater barriers for people.” Implementing a more burdensome visa application process may also affect international students hoping to further their education in the US by causing “unacceptably long delays in processing.” Babak Yousefzadeh, a San Francisco-based attorney and president of the Iranian American Bar Association, tells Reuters that he also believes that the new security questions grant "arbitrary power" to consular officials to determine visa issuance with no effective checks on their decisions.

In response, State Department officials say that the new questions will not be administered to all applicants, but only when a consular official determines “that such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting.” The State Department says that these security measures will only apply to those “who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related ineligibilities.” Estimates suggest that approximately 65,000 of the thirteen million annual visa applicants will be subject to this heightened scrutiny. The Office of Management and Budget approved the questionnaire for a six-month emergency period, although measures of this nature are typically put into effect for three years; however, after November of this year, it is expected to become permanent. “The United States has one of the most stringent visa application processes in the world,” Yousefzadeh tells Reuters. “The need for tightening the application process further is really unknown and unclear.”