Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In the latest in the slew of controversial and restrictive immigration provisions put in place by the Trump administration, the US State Department announced this week that nonimmigrant visa forms had been updated to require “most” visa applicants to provide information about “their social media handles along with other information” going back five years. In a diffident statement to The New York Times, the State Department played down the potential impact of the new requirement, saying: “We already request certain contact information, travel history, family member information, and previous addresses from all visa applicants.” The new screening requirements, officials added, were put in place to “protect US citizens.”
Both premises, that the demand for social media information is not more intrusive than other existing provisions and that it is required to protect American citizens, are questionable at best.
When applicants fill out a visa application for a nonimmigrant visa to the United States, one of the primary things they must provide is evidence that they do not intend to overstay their visas. Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USCS 1184(b)) states: “Every alien … shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status.” In plain language, this means that in the process of applying for a visa, the presumption is against the applicant, who must prove to the satisfaction of the consular officer that he or she will not come to the United States and never leave.
Sharing five years of social media posts, likes, retweets and other information is likely to make it even harder for nonimmigrant visa applicants to satisfy the requirements. When considered against the legal requirements, these measures seem designed to provide consular officers more reasons to reject those applying for nonimmigrant visas. This is a particular problem, given the fact that the consular officer has total discretion and those whose applications are denied cannot appeal the decision.
Social media posts from three or four or five years ago, ones that say something like, “I wish I could get away from here,” or, “I wish I lived in New York,” could be construed as evidence of the intent to stay, as could any number of the ambiguous or reactive statements that people routinely make on social media platforms.
The matter becomes even more complicated in the case of those applying for student visas because any post signaling their excitement at attending this or that university in a particular town or city could be misinterpreted to signify a possible intention to stay after the degree is complete.
Then, there are the privacy and surveillance issues. The social media provisions create an artificial divide between US citizens, whose speech and information on Facebook or Twitter is protected by the First Amendment, and noncitizen visa applicants, whose information is not. In its response to the new requirements, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that the requirements raise “significant privacy concerns and First Amendment issues for citizens and immigrants.”
In extending its tentacles into nonimmigrant social media data, US Immigration and Citizenship Services may well extend its surveillance capabilities to include everyone who may have noncitizen relatives outside the United States who apply for nonimmigrant visas and with whom they communicate on social media. This is particularly chilling given the fact that the Trump administration is already pursuing policies such as “denaturalization,” making significant investments into speeding up and expanding the government’s ability to take US citizenship away from already-naturalized citizens. Since naturalized citizens will inevitably have relations and friends who are noncitizens, this new visa policy could also potentially facilitate evidence collection for that purpose.
The world of social media is the borderless virtual realm that has transformed our lives and our access to other people, to faraway lands and to new ideas. There is an equalizing force in this virtual realm, one that deigns citizenship and nationality and its arbitrary awards of rights and privileges less important than in real life.
In demanding that visa applicants provide five years’ worth of social media handles and account information, the United States is helping to create hierarchies of citizenship and surveillance in the virtual realm as it has on its actual borders. Most importantly, it is erecting yet another obstacle for tourists and family members and students wanting to visit the United States, a country that was once proud of its open and welcoming shores.