Social Media & Immigration: Harmful or Helpful?

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting a few months ago, amid questions surrounding the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) visa screening process, a number of news sources published articles discussing DHS’ “secret” policy prohibiting review of visa applicants’ social media footprint. Many of those articles discuss whether or not analysts and adjudicators at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in fact do review applicants’ social media accounts. Others discuss the likelihood of social media review to be incorporated in future policy.

Whether or not DHS or DOS reviews applicants’ social media presence, it is safe to assume that in this day and age, the social media footprint of any type of applicant, be it a visa applicant or a job applicant, matters. That footprint can be helpful or harmful, depending on what information is available, how it is presented, and who brings it to light in the immigration process.

As many US immigration applicants know, both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State play a major role in the immigration process, and both departments differ greatly in their processing procedures. The “secret” policy discussed by numerous articles applies to the Department of Homeland Security, which is completely autonomous from the Department of State. Simply because DHS’ policy of social media non-reviewability has become public, it should not be assumed that the Department of State has also employed such a policy of non-reviewability. State Department consular officers abroad and analysts in the U.S. certainly use a variety of tools to assess the eligibility and background of visa applicants, and one of these tools may be as simple as a Google search.

Google searches can bring an individual to a variety of social media accounts, namely LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as social media accounts on platforms that are popular in other countries, like Bebo, Friendster, Multiply, or Orkut. One’s social media footprint can paint a vast picture of a person, perhaps without their realization. If one’s privacy settings are lenient enough, an individual who is searching will be able to see posts that a user “likes”, shares, and those on which that user has commented. Again, depending on one’s privacy settings, pictures in which a user has been tagged can be viewed, groups and places that one has liked can be public, one’s relationship status can be viewed, and one’s friend list is public. From these pieces of information, it may be possible for someone to gain a comprehensive understanding of a user’s personality, professional qualifications, communication and grammar skills, groups or movements in which the user is interested, and even other’s opinion of that user.

Though social media was once a way to share information with those intended, it has become a way for individuals to learn about others whom they do not personally know. One should assume that individuals of importance can and may look at social media accounts, whether that is a possible employer or interviewer, an individual in the government, or even an upcoming first date and their family. In today’s dynamic political climate, it is critically important that everyone be aware of their social media footprint, and what information about them may be publically available.

On the other hand, social media can be tremendously helpful in the immigration context, especially in family-based cases. If a couple uses social media and regularly posts photos, comments, updates, etc. about each other, things they are doing together, etc, documentation of that, carefully presented, can be great supporting documentation of the bona fides of their relationship.

Whether or not the “secret” policy of social media non-reviewability is adjusted within DHS, it is critical to note the importance of one’s social media footprint in today’s world, in which information is often times free-flowing, extensive, and easy to reach.