As part of President Trump’s directive on March 6, 2017 to implement heightened screening and vetting of applications for visas, a new question now appears on the DS-160 and DS-260 forms used by visa applicants at U.S. consulates.
Following the 2017 Presidential Memorandum, the Department of State had published a notice in the Federal Register last year explaining its plans to add several additional questions for nonimmigrant visa applicants, including a question listing multiple social media platforms and requiring the applicant to provide any identifiers (handles) used by applicants for those platforms during the five years preceding the date of application. Initially, the Department of State began using a supplemental questionnaire, Form DS-5535, requiring only some visa applicants who have been flagged for further review to provide their social media information. Now, all DS-160 and DS-260 applications include the request for social media platform usernames.
The government reasoned that this information enables “more rigorous evaluation of applications.” The government claims that failure to collect this information would impede such rigorous evaluation and the national-security purposes for which it was directed when the circumstances of an individual applicant, a review of a visa application, or responses in a visa interview indicate a need for additional information to resolve the applicant’s identity or to vet for terrorism or other national security related visa ineligibilities.
One rationale put forth by the government at the time of the proposal is that terrorist groups, including ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and al-Qa’ida’s affiliates, actively use social media to disseminate official messaging, recruit potential members, and convince potential supporters to mobilize to violence. Department of State consular officers will use the information collected in the visa adjudication process with partner U.S. government agencies to determine certain applicants’ eligibility for a visa under existing statutory grounds of inadmissibility, so as to more rigorously evaluate the security and related visa ineligibilities.
Consular officers have been directed not to engage or interact with individuals on or through social media; not to violate or attempt to violate individual privacy settings; and not to use social media or assess an individual’s social media presence beyond established Department guidance. The same safeguards that protect a visa applicant’s personal information will remain in effect for social media identifiers. The collection of social media platforms and identifiers will not be used to deny visas based on applicants’ race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, political views, gender, or sexual orientation. Consular officers will not request user passwords and will not attempt to subvert any privacy controls the applicants may have implemented on these platforms.
Relevant State Department officials estimated that 0.005% of U.S. visa applicants worldwide, or in the range of 65,000 individuals per year, could present a threat profile, based on individual circumstances and information they provide.
Next time you plan to apply for your visa stamp, be prepared to provide a five-year history of the social media platforms you have used and your usernames.