Update: As of May 2019, visa applicants will be required to list all their social media handles over the last five years before a visa will be issued.
Don’t you just love having information at your fingertips? I mean, how great is it that in a matter of seconds, we can access an almost unlimited amount of targeted research via online search engines. Arguably one of the best inventions since the internet itself, is the search engine.
Well, as much as we love using it to find out more about our favorite celebrity, or how to bake a cake, or even to do some of that virtual “stalking” of a crush we have, the U.S. Government also loves using it to do some virtual stalking of their own.
USCIS, ICE and CBP are Searching Immigrants Online
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of State (DOS) have been using the internet to research applicants for a long time. It’s only lately that they have been more open about doing so. Any lawyer who has been practicing immigration law for a while will have experienced a number of situations when the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or a U.S. Consulate abroad has confirmed in their correspondence that they have found derogatory information on the applicant or petitioner via internet searches.
At last count, Facebook has about 2.2 billion monthly active users worldwide. Twitter has about 330 million monthly active users. Snapchat has about 300 million monthly active users. Instagram has 800 million. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Millions upon millions of people worldwide are using social media on a daily basis. Some people use it passively, while others are more active by sharing links, liking posts, posting their own thoughts and even engaging in banter with friends/family and strangers. What we say, what we like, what we share and what we subscribe to are not only being monitored by the for-profit, non-governmental entity providing us with the platform to express ourselves, but are also being monitored by the U.S. Government when we apply for an immigration benefit.
What you said on Facebook in the comments section that one time many moons ago can come back and bite you — on your you-know-what — in present time. Call it unfair. Call it an invasion of privacy. Call it whatever you want. The reality of it is, DHS and DOS can, and very well might, use what you’ve said and done online against you. Your online presence can be used by the U.S. Government to assist them in their decision-making process. Want some examples? Sure, check this out:
Facebook Doesn't Know You're Happily Married
You filed an adjustment of status application based on marriage to your U.S. citizen spouse. A USCIS officer wants to see if you really were in a genuine relationship, so they Google you. Your Facebook profile pops up and USCIS does some mild digging. You have a lot of pictures on your page but there aren’t any of your spouse. You’re also listed as single. The immigration officer is getting concerned and red flags are popping up. You may have a simple explanation for not having any pictures of your spouse on Facebook. Maybe you have many pictures on Facebook of you and your spouse, but your privacy settings limit their viewability to friends.
Perhaps your Facebook relationship status hasn’t been updated for many years and is therefore inaccurate. The immigration officer doesn’t have the benefit of your reasons/justifications for the derogatory information until the officer requests an explanation from you. By the time the officer solicits clarification, the damage done by the initial internet search can cause your application to derail. An experienced immigration attorney can often help you get back on track, but it can be time consuming, emotionally taxing on you, and increase the cost of your legal fees.
Google Says You Plagiarized Your Work
Let’s say your employer filed an employment-based immigrant petition for you. The USCIS asks your employer to submit any evidence of projects you have worked on. Your employer submits a document you created for the company as part of a project. The employer believed the document you created was genuine and your own work-product. But, the USCIS Googled some of the text in your document and found that material you included was plagiarized and you did not provide any citations.
Those are just two examples of many potential scenarios when something you have said and done can be verified or debunked by using the internet. And the U.S. Government will use the internet to their advantage, as simply and effectively as you use it to your advantage.
As a basic rule of thumb, if you don’t want something to be used against you, just don’t do it. Even if what you do online is entirely legal and innocent, keep your online profiles on lock-down, because even innocent activity can be misconstrued. Consider yourself forewarned.
Sunil C. Patel is an experienced immigration attorney and himself a first-generation immigrant. Formerly a managing attorney with a multinational immigration and corporate law firm, he now focuses his practice exclusively in immigration law at his own law firm, Sunil C. Patel Immigration Law, LLC. Sunil welcomes inquiries from new clients. To schedule a consultation, please call (770) 756-6056 or visit www.sunpatlaw.com. You can also schedule an appointment by selecting an available time on his calendar.