US visa applicants will now have to hand over their social media handles for greater scrutiny of their applications. The US Department of State announced that people will now need to volunteer their social media handles, email addresses, and phone numbers going back five years as part of their visa application process.
BBC reports that people visiting the US or planning to study there will need to provide social media information, but some diplomats and officials won’t.
Around 15 million people—including non-immigrants—will be subject to the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” proposal that he signed into policy in 2017.
This policy was attached to the anti-immigration rhetoric that has become foundational for Trump. His administration has consistently said it supports “legal” immigration—implying documented applicants who come in through official channels.
This social media “extreme vetting policy” is an arm of that same rhetoric and aims to weed out “terrorist sentiment or activity”, said a state department official.
Major changes to the US immigration system
Other than social media surveillance, the US announced another major change to the US immigration system. Calling it a pivot away from “family-based” migration and to “skills-based” migration, the Trump administration introduced a point-based system for alloting visas.
This policy has two key parts: constructing the 346-kilometre long border wall that has been the subject of a government shutdown and a point-based visa allotment.
Visa applicants will be awarded points on their language proficiency and educational qualifications, and those with the most points will be more likely to get a visa. This policy is unlike the previous one where people were more likely to migrate to the US if they had family members living there.
This new policy reads somewhat like Canada’s Express Entry, a permanent residency application that is also point-based.
Although DACA has been a divisive issue, Trump’s new immigration policy does not address Dreamers or people covered the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme that allows children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country if they meet certain conditions.
Trump’s new changes will not result in increased visa approvals—the 1.1 million cap on green cards will remain the same. Moreover, the point-based system and social media surveillance could impact the high volume of visa applications from Indian nationals.
The process is likely to become more time-consuming and cumbersome, putting pressure on applicants like employees and students who need to adhere to arrival deadlines set by their college or place of work. However, lying about social media presence or declining to provide the required information is also not an option, because those who do might face “serious immigration consequences”, said an official from the state department.
The US is also dealing with a large backlog of green card applications, so these changes might be slow to implement, resulting in a number of confused applicants in the meantime.
Is social media surveillance effective for visa applicants?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had disagreed with the proposal when it was first introduced in 2018. It had said that social media surveillance was problematic because it created a culture of censorship and opened minorities up to targeted discrimination and racial profiling.
In January, the ACLU sued the US federal government for this very policy. “Social media surveillance feeds the discriminatory real world targeting of Black people, immigrants, religious minority communities, and political dissidents. It’s unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying,” said the ACLU.
The body also said that there is no evidence that social media monitoring is fair or effective.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius