The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has started to collect social media account information from individuals who are looking to travel to the United States or seeking immigration-related benefits. This has been going on since earlier this year, and there's been a recent push to expand the vetting process.
To be more specific, DHS will be looking at applicants’ social media activity over the past five years. Social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit and many more are all included.
Immigration advocates are worried about this new process after a college student from Lebanon with a student visa made headlines when he was denied access to the U.S. after a post made by one of his followers was flagged by immigration officials.
YR Media spoke with Managing Director at Centro Legal de la Raza Maciel Jaques about how her legal team is educating the immigrant community on the importance of social media and what kinds of things to avoid having in your social media profiles.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
YR: The Department of Homeland Security is requesting social media information on applications for immigration benefits and foreign travel to the U.S. What are your thoughts on this?
Maciel Jaques: This administration is obviously empowered right now and feeling very bold around the parameters of what they can and cannot obtain. We always advise our clients to be aware that social media is all permanent, so they should be mindful of the organizations that they're in, the posts that they put or the pictures that they share. We always recommend that they should meet with an attorney or a DOJ [Department of Justice] representative before submitting their application to make sure that everything is being done correctly and that they're not being put in a situation where they may end up in removal proceedings or applying for something that they aren't, in fact, eligible for.
YR: When you're screening applications, does that also mean screening their social profiles?
MJ: Well it involves a consultation around what people should be mindful of when posting on social media. [For example], anything that involves posts about drugs or gangs because those are two examples of something that could affect your eligibility to apply for an immigration benefit.
YR: Is the collecting of social media information new?
MJ: I can't speak to what's been done in the past, but I think it's definitely the direction the administration seems to be moving in. It seems like another fear tactic to instill in the immigrant community. I understand that [people] can't control what other people post, but always be mindful of who you're following and the privacy around posts that you may [make.] Be mindful of the groups that you're associated with and the people that you're associated with. This is a conversation that we've been having with DACA applicants for the last few years.
YR: Do you think applicants fully understand that their social media accounts aren’t private?
MJ: I believe so, especially when it comes to making posts about marijuana usage or things like that. I think that's why it's important for them to consult with an attorney or a DOJ accredited representative because that's when you get a comprehensive consultation about things that could affect your eligibility to apply for certain benefits or remain in the country.
YR: Do you suggest and guide new applicants to do a cleanup of their social platforms?
MJ: In general, yes. It's one of the things included in our consultations. I would say these are the types of things that could affect your moral character in this country or your ability to apply for an immigration benefit. So things like drug usage, marijuana, gangs, all of those things go to anything that could give someone the impression that you have a criminal past or that you are involved in things that you shouldn't.
YR: I'm wondering if anyone finds it hard to restrain themselves from social media?
MJ: I don't think that taking extra precautions comes to them as a shock as far as their legal process because unfortunately, that's the reality of the world that we live in.
YR: Do you think it is harder to be undocumented now than before?
MJ: Being undocumented is never an easy experience for anyone. I do think this is a difficult time, but I also think that there are a lot more resources now than 10 years ago for the undocumented population. So with the bad comes the good. There are a lot of resources, especially in California, in legal service organizations that educate the community and provide free legal services.