Terry H. Schwadron
April 3, 2018
If I read it correctly, the Trump administrator, defender of reducing government spending for all things but national security and military parades, now wants to screen the social media posts of every visitor to the United States.
All 14.7 million of them, including my family from Argentina.
I guess the idea is that you can’t be too careful about who enters through the nation’s airports, ports and roads. Someone may have become radicalized and want to harm Americans.
Of course, you might notice that some people come to this country to do business, as part of cultural tours, or just to visit their cousins. For a country suddenly obsessed with trade balance and reciprocity, I’m expecting that the next overseas vacation we plan will require sharing my fascinating Facebook and Instagram posts.
I’m sure overseas customs officials as just as rapt about seeing pictures of my grandchildren and the picture of my jazz band playing at a Greenwich Village club as American audiences are.
Under rules that the U.S. State Department issued last week, nearly all applicants for a visa to enter the United States — 14.7 million people a year — will be asked to submit their social media user names for the past five years, so that some lucky government employee can go through the posts in the hunt for radical Islamic threats. Hey, in his previous job at Homeland Security, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly Jr. wanted the rule to require that all visitors turn over passwords too.
I can just imagine waiting in the visa line as people try to remember their passwords for up to 20 social media sites, including Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine and YouTube as well as Chinese sites Douban, QQ, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo and Youku, the Russian social network VK, Twoo, which was created in Belgium, and Ask.fm, a question-and-answer platform based in Latvia.
As outlined, the program is the realization of President Trump’s promise of “extreme vetting” for people seeking to enter the United States. Last year, the State Department directed consular officials worldwide to ask more questions of visa applicants.
About 40 countries are not affected, since they are designated as visa waiver countries (here is a list), but the rules will affect my cousins in Argentina, who actually like to come to the United States to do enough shopping here that we kid them about keeping the American economy afloat. I see their social media posts, which are heavy on pictures of dinners at my uncle’s apartment and their kids’ birthday celebrations.
Visitors traveling on diplomatic and official visas will mostly be exempted. Good. I would hate to think that Vladimir Putin’s or Hassan Assad’s crowds have to answer some questions before he comes to the United Nations to attack this country verbally.
What is not particularly clear is whether it is only threats that we are seeking. Perhaps expressions of “free speech” that suggest that President Trump is unfit or a persistent liar might be tagged. Perhaps criticizing an allied but flawed leader like Turkey’s Antonin Ergodan or Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu might be a problem — or something that we think we must share with the country of origin. Perhaps since overstay of visas is our most persistent immigration issue, we should ask arriving visitors how soon they plan to leave, like an unwanted relative.
Tell me again why this makes sense?
Here’s the State Department explanation: “Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats. We already request limited contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants. Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity.”
Currently, those millions of people and more (some visas get turned down) fill out an online application for a nonimmigrant visa. It takes about 90 minutes to fill out. Along with the social media information, visa applicants will be asked for past passport numbers, phone numbers and email addresses; records of international travel; whether they have been deported or removed, or violated immigration law, and whether relatives have been involved in terrorist activities
The government is quick to note that the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack in 2015, which killed 14 people, raised questions about why the government had missed signed of radicalization in online-messaging platforms used by the couple involved.
So, the same government that wants tourists to buy American is seeing visa requests start to taper off, though visits to New York City continue to set new records, as anyone who has tried to walk through Times Square can tell you.
The ACLU, which has a National Security Project, dropped in with its criticisms: “This attempt to collect a massive amount of information on the social media activity of millions of visa applicants is yet another ineffective and deeply problematic Trump administration plan. It will infringe on the rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens by chilling freedom of speech and association, particularly because people will now have to wonder if what they say online will be misconstrued or misunderstood by a government official.”
Legal experts called it intrusive if not ridiculous, though it may not be legally challengeable. Even Facebook, which faces its own privacy problems, said in a statement that its position continues to be, “We oppose any efforts to force travelers at the border to turn over their private account information, including passwords.”
There is a public comment period for the new State Department requirements, Form Number: DS-5535, to both the Department of State Desk Officer in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the form number, “Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants” and you must include Docket Number: DOS-2017–0019 in the subject line of your message.
Just don’t tweet about it.