Social Media Scrutiny on Visa Applications
On May 31, 2019, the Department of State added new questions to Forms DS-160/DS-156 Nonimmigrant Visa Application and Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa Application. These additional questions require the foreign national to disclose social media platforms they have used within the past five years, as well as provide their username(s) for each platform. Passwords for these accounts do not have to be disclosed and should not be provided. Additional questions request the visa applicant’s current e-mail and phone number, in addition to contact information for the previous five years. If applicants are unable to recall precise details, they may insert “unknown,” but should be prepared for the possibility of additional screening during the visa process. Please note, this a question that must be answered as fully as possible by the Foreign National. Not providing the requested details could result in denial or quite possibly the denial of subsequent immigration applications.
Forms DS-160/DS-156 and DS-260 are the online applications used by individuals seeking a nonimmigrant or immigrant visa from the U.S. Department of State. Completion of the forms is the first step in the process with the Department of State, and must be submitted before scheduling and attending the visa interview. The Department of State has stated that the changes are intended “to improve … screening processes to protect U.S. citizens, while supporting legitimate travel to the United States,” as well as “vetting … applicants and confirming their identity.”
Further, on September 4, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a federal rule to add similar social media questions to several forms, including the applications for naturalization, advance parole, adjustment of status, asylum, and to remove conditions on permanent residents, along with many others. Additionally, applicants for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS), used for frequent international travel, are included in the proposed rule.
These changes stem from the President’s March 6, 2017 Executive Order, requesting heightened screening and vetting of visa applicants. The March 2017 Executive Order requested that the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence create “a uniform baseline for screening and vetting standards and procedures.” The addition of the social media and contact information requirements to these application forms is part of the Department of State’s response to that Order. This represents a step up for the Department of State, which previously only asked that applicants voluntarily provide their social media information.
An individual’s social media content can be easily taken out of context, even more so when the postings are from long ago and/or are in a foreign language. Social media also provides an individual’s history of contacts, associations and preferences. While much (justifiable) concern has been expressed about the scrutiny of foreign nationals’ associations and political speech, many social media platforms and the posts thereon will provide information on a foreign national’s employment history and residency. Employment history and residency information can be particularly relevant in employment-based nonimmigrant and immigrant visa applications, such as the H-1B, L-1A and I-140 petitions. These details can also be very important in that the Department of State can use them to compare the information on social media to the information contained in the visa applications. Any discrepancies in that information can lead to difficulty in successfully obtaining both nonimmigrant and immigrant visas. Possible discrepancies can lead to delays in processing, requests for additional information, increased scrutiny in other areas of the application and even denial.
Additionally, many individuals do not keep their social media accounts up to date. As the requested information covers the last five years of the applicant’s social media history (including those accounts that may be closed at the time of the application) information is likely to be out of date, incomplete and out of context. Further, the tendency to embellish employment history or to inadvertently misstate employer information (e.g., indicating Company A as the employer while actually working for placement agency Company B that has been assigned to Company A) can work against an applicant. Both of these scenarios can result in the Department of State obtaining information contradictory to the nonimmigrant or immigrant form and can create obstacles to obtaining the desired visa.
Accordingly, it is imperative that foreign nationals are cognizant of the information they are posting on their social media accounts regarding their residency and employment history, paying particular attention that information contained on the social media platforms is consistent with the information contained in the visa applications.