Green Card Basics: Do USCIS Officials Look at My Social Media Accounts?

The short answer is yes, USCIS will usually look through your social media accounts before they approve any immigration applications.

The short answer is no, USCIS officials will no longer look through your social media accounts before they approve your green card petition.

While this practice evolved due to several policy developments over the past few years, particularly those implemented under the Trump administration, the Biden administration has recently rescinded the executive order that allowed for this practice.

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.

NOTE: The Biden administration has recently rejected the Department of Homeland Security’s plea to continue this practice because “the agency has not adequately demonstrated the practical utility of collecting this information.”

The executive order that directed the agency to collect this information has also been rescinded.

This means that individuals applying for immigration benefits through DHS (and the associated USCIS) no longer have to submit their social media information alongside their applications.

Individuals who apply for immigration benefits through the State Department, however, must still submit this information on their applications.

A Brief History of Social Media Surveillance in the Immigration Context

young woman using smart phone,social media concept.

The practice of USCIS and other departments 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.

In April of 2021, the Biden administration rejected the Department of Homeland Security’s plea to continue this practice because “the agency has not adequately demonstrated the practical utility of collecting this information.”

The executive order that directed the agency to collect this information, which was originally passed alongside the now defunct Muslim ban order, has also been rescinded.

This means that individuals applying for immigration benefits through DHS (and the associated USCIS) no longer have to submit their social media information alongside their applications.

Individuals who apply for immigration benefits through the State Department, however, must still submit this information alongside their applications.

Why Did USCIS Look Through Social Media?

woman hand using smartphone and show technology icon social media. concept social network.

Historically, there were several justifications for why USCIS or the State Department would look through social media accounts.

Generally speaking, their arguments fell into three broad categories:

  • National Security — In the broadest terms, USCIS enforced this rule for the sake of national security. They argued that they were looking for any obvious red flags that might indicate the immigrant could be a national security threat or otherwise burden law enforcement.
  • Inadmissibility — USCIS also used to check for clues that might indicate an immigrant was inadmissible to the United States for another reason. For example, some applicants could be inadmissible due to various health concerns or because of criminal connections or a history of crime. If USCIS found evidence of this on their social media page, they would generally review the immigrant’s application with additional scrutiny.
  • Fraud — Finally, USCIS would also check for any instances of fraud or misrepresentation in the application. For example, if the immigrant applied for a green card on the basis of marriage to a U.S. citizen, USCIS might have found it suspicious if the immigrant posted recent romantic vacation photos featuring them and another person.

Put simply, USCIS used to look through social media accounts because it was an easily accessible window into the private lives of the immigrants they were processing.

While this is still the case (and some officials will still at least do a Google search for the individual named in the case they’re working on), recent changes in policy have made it much more difficult to track immigrants online.

Conclusion

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In one way or another, 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 and other agencies will generally at least try to 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 any kind of immigration petition or application.

At the barest of minimums, you should make sure all of the information on your application is correct and does not conflict with anything publicly available on your social media profiles.

Finally, and most importantly, you should always speak with an attorney before you submit any documents to the government.

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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