The short answer is yes, USCIS will most likely look through your social media accounts before they approve your green card petition.
This is not a new policy from USCIS, and its use will likely increase over the coming years as social media becomes a more integral part of everyday life for immigrating individuals.
Importantly, this practice has evolved due to several policy developments over the past few years, particularly those implemented under the Trump administration.
In this article, we’ll briefly cover the basics of how USCIS started the practice, where it is heading, and how you can best protect yourself.
Keep in mind, however, that this topic is subject to change, so you should always review the most recent updates with an attorney before making any decisions in your case.
A Brief History of USCIS Social Media Surveillance
The practice of USCIS collecting social media information largely began under the Obama administration in 2008 and expanded into its current implementation sometime around late 2014.
At first, it was used rather sparingly and only applied to a few select cases.
Further, the information was processed manually by small teams in test programs that were not publicly disclosed.
Eventually, an automated search tool was implemented to make the search more efficient and accurate.
While it’s hard to know exactly when this practice began, we know that by late 2016 to early 2017 the groundwork was being laid for USCIS to begin collecting social media data at a larger scale.
Specifically, around this period USCIS began asking for social media usernames during the visa and green card application process.
This practice was further expanded in 2017 and 2018 through initiatives such as Trump’s infamous Muslim Ban and other revamped screening processes.
In the final two years of the Trump administration the program continued to grow, but shifted back into the manual review of social media accounts due to several shortcomings in the automated tools.
So far, the Biden administration has yet to make any major policy changes regarding this practice.
Where This Leaves Us Today
Current visa and green card applicants must include all of their social media usernames on their immigration forms, most notably the I-485 (the green card application) and the N-400 (the citizenship application).
USCIS agents will usually follow up on these usernames by quickly glancing through your account for any information that may disqualify you for the status you’re applying for.
USCIS has also made it known that they will continue to collect and store this data until your immigration process is complete.
Note, however, that the major loophole in this process is that USCIS agents cannot and should not “friend” or follow you on social media.
This means that any posts or images on your profiles that are set to private cannot be viewed by these officials.
For this reason, it’s often wise to set your entire profile to private so only your friends can view it during your immigration process.
Why Does USCIS Look Through Social Media?
There are several justifications for why USCIS will look through your social media account.
Generally speaking, the arguments fall into three broad categories:
- National Security — In the broadest terms, USCIS enforces this rule for the sake of national security. They’re basically looking for any obvious red flags that might indicate you’ll be a national security threat or otherwise burden law enforcement.
- Inadmissibility — USCIS will also check for clues that might indicate you’re inadmissible to the United States for another reason. For example, some applicants may be inadmissible due to various health concerns or because of criminal connections or a history of crime. If USCIS finds evidence of this on your social media page, they may review your application with additional scrutiny.
- Fraud — Finally, USCIS will also check for any instances of fraud or misrepresentation in your application. For example, if you apply for a green card on the basis of marriage to a U.S. citizen, USCIS may find it suspicious if they find recent romantic vacation photos featuring you and another person.
Put simply, USCIS will look through your social media because it’s an easily accessible window into your life which provides additional context to the information you provide in your application.
For this reason, it’s important that you manage what ends up on your social media profiles so you can put your best face forward with USCIS.
How to Protect Yourself During Your Application Process
The best way to protect yourself from USCIS is to set your social media profiles to private so only friends can access your information.
Even if you have nothing to hide, you can never know what your friends will post or tag you in, and it’s better to play it safe when it comes to your immigration application.
For example, if a friend from high school tags you in a post about how he used to sell marijuana, this fact could hurt your application just by the implication that you used to do drugs.
Finally, the best way to protect yourself during the application process is to always be thorough and accurate when filling out your application.
Even if this sounds like simple advice, basic misrepresentations and inaccurate answers can lead to major delays and restrictions if USCIS finds conflicting information on your social media profiles.
Always review your application with an attorney to confirm its accuracy before you submit it to USICS.
Social media surveillance is a practice that will likely be around for a long time in the contexts of immigration applications.
Due to the large amount of personal information available on social media accounts, USCIS will generally at least glance at your profile before they make a decision in your case.
For this reason, it’s smart to take steps to curate your online presence before you submit anything to USCIS.
At the barest of minimums, you should make sure all of the information on your application is correct and does not conflict with anything available on your social media profiles.
Finally, and most importantly, you should always speak with an attorney before submitting anything to USICS.
Only an attorney can give you an accurate representation of what you should expect in your case, as well as the effect your social media profile may have on your application.
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