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New US visa rules may push foreigners to censor their social-media posts

US Embassy in London lobby with U.S. Seal (US Embassy London)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Foreigners who decry American imperialism while seeking to relax on Miami’s sandy beaches or play poker at Las Vegas’s casinos may seek to soften their tone on Twitter.

Or foreigners posting on Facebook about someday living in New York City may now decide to take their love for the Big Apple down a notch, lest they be suspected of wanting to stay in the United States permanently.

The reason?

The U.S. State Department is now demanding visa applicants provide their social-media profiles on nearly two dozen platforms, including Facebook and Twitter.

The rules, which took effect on May 31, don’t require applicants to turn over passwords to social-media accounts.

Still, immigration lawyers said the demands may stifle open discussion on social media, making prospective immigrants or visitors more cautious about what they post and whom they befriend online.

“People will be afraid to express their opinion on politics of the U.S,” said Andrei Romanenko, a Russian-speaking immigration lawyer based in San Francisco. “Some will fear to add friends living in the U.S. because they may think that an extensive network of friends in the U.S. may become an indicator of immigrant intent.”

Announced last year, the updated rules are part of a wider program by President Donald Trump to tighten the U.S. borders, a campaign promise that helped him get elected in 2016.

Now, most people who are required to obtain a visa — even if it’s just to visit relatives for a few days — are required to share their social-media information on their application form.

The rules don’t apply to people from countries that currently are exempt from short-term visa rules — for example, foreign tourists or business travelers who are allowed to visit the United States for 90 days, visa-free, under the Visa Waiver Program. But individuals seeking employment visas will be required to turn over, say, their LinkedIn profile information.

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” the State Department said in a statement to RFE/RL. “We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

20 Platforms

The rules now require applicants to share their social-media handles or identifiers used in the past five years for the following platforms: Ask FM, Douban, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, MySpace, Pinterest, QZone, Reddit, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, Tumblr, Twitter, Twoo, Vine, VKontakte, YouKu, and YouTube.

Among the noticeable exemptions are Snapchat and dating apps like Tinder. The State Department said it would add additional platforms at a later date, though it did not disclose which ones.

Applicants with more than one account on a social-media platform such as Facebook must share each identifier.

Applicants who have never registered for any of these social-media sites will not be refused a visa for failing to fill out the social-media question, the State Department said.

Karnig Dukmajian, an immigration attorney at Laura Devine Solicitors in London, said he did not believe immigration officials would look at every applicant’s social-media accounts.

Rather, he believes they will be used as an additional tool to scrutinize just those applicants that raise concern among U.S. immigration officials.

“We just don’t know how they are going to be using it or even if they have the capacity to do anything with this information,” said Dukmajian, adding wide-scale checking could possibly slow down visa processing times.

Romanenko said that immigration officials using foreigners’ social-media pages to verify information on their application could lead to “disaster,” including the applicants being banned for life from the United States over inconsistencies between their posts and their application.

“It is hard to argue that an omission of an international trip or a job from the visa application was inadvertent and not an intentional misrepresentation while seeking immigration benefits,” Romanenko said. Such an omission could be considered fraud, he said.

Even before the new rules, the United States had already requested detailed information of applicants for immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, including travel history, family member information, previous home addresses as well as employers and education.

Photographs, too, have been a key component of the application process, with digital images required for some visa categories and printed photos for other categories, according to the State Department’s website.

Dukmajian said that while some clients are frustrated with the new requirements, “no one has gotten emotional or excited over it.”

Foreigners planning trips to the United States told RFE/RL the new demands won’t deter them from applying for visas in the future.

“It would not disturb me as I have nothing to hide. I think my friends would feel the same way. In any case, even if you didn’t give your [social-media] information, they can find it online,” said Maria Gorelova, a resident of the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin who is making her first trip to the United States this month. She received her visa prior to the new rules taking effect.

St. Petersburg resident Artem Tikhonov, who has visited the United States several times, called the new regulation “unpleasant,” but said he will comply as he enjoys traveling around the United States.

“This is pressure on personal freedom; but you need to understand it’s an administrative policy, discount it, and try not to ponder it. It’s the impersonal requirements of the state machine,” he said. “As for me, I am willing to put up with it.”