If you're an active participant on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or similar social media sites, and you're either seeking U.S. entry or are in the U.S. with any status other than U.S. citizenship, think twice before you post personal things. While your friends and family might enjoy knowing about your relationships, travel, and everyday ups and downs, so might the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
This agency actively monitors social media accounts of people applying for visas outside of the U.S. as well as visa holders, immigrants, and naturalized citizens within the United States. You probably won't know you're being monitored. In fact, recent reports found that the DHS was creating phony accounts for interacting with people online.
DHS issued a public notice in the 2017 Federal Register, describing how it collects and stores social media information on temporary visa holders, immigrants (including legal permanent residents), and even naturalized U.S. citizens (those who were not citizens at birth). After a public comment period, the policy became official.
Under this policy, DHS can collect social media handles or aliases, search for information on the accounts in databases and search engines, and then store the information in what's known as the immigrant's official Alien File, or "A-file."
Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents may also ask to search mobile electronic devices and social media accounts at the U.S. border or ports of entry. If you are a U.S. citizen, CBP cannot deny you entry to the U.S., but it can seize your electronic device if you refuse to grant this access. If you are not a citizen, CBP can always deny you entry if you refuse to give it access to your electronic device.
When posting on social media, be especially careful not to reveal anything showing or implying that you have ever committed a crime or are not eligible for the visa or status you are seeking or have already received. Also think twice before accepting friend requests from people you don't actually know. You don't need to become buddies with a DHS agent!
Drugs can be a particular problem for would-be immigrants, namely federally controlled substances, even if they are legal in in the state where they're being used. Marijuana is the most obvious example, whether for recreational or medical use. (See Will Legal Use of Marijuana Make Applicant for Immigration Benefits Inadmissible? and Can Green Card Holders Use Medical Marijuana in States Where It's Legal?.)
Consequences for any type of criminal activity are particularly severe for non-citizens. In fact, they can be detained for prolonged periods in an immigration facility for even being suspected of criminal activity; regardless of whether they have been found guilty in a court of law. And even green card holders can be deported for various crimes.
Furthermore, you should be cautious of any posts implying that you have an affiliation with a criminal gang or terrorist organization. DHS is especially concerned with such affiliations and can use your social media posts to argue that you are a danger to the community or a threat to U.S. national security. Even pretending or joking about a gang or terrorist affiliation could put your legal status in the U.S. into jeopardy.
DHS is always looking for the possibility that you've committed fraud in obtaining or trying to obtain your visa, green card, or citizenship. For example, if you got a green card through marriage but your social media account shows you with your arms regularly around a person who is not your spouse, including on romantic tropical vacations; or you've created a profile on a dating site like Match.com; the validity of your visa application and green card could come into question.
Another example of potentially problematic posts are ones that call into question your date of entry into the U.S. or length of stay in the United States (which can impact basic eligibility for certain immigration benefits).
For example, you might claim that you first entered the U.S. in a certain month and year, but social media shows a string of photos of you in another country then. Or, you might have claimed to never have left the U.S., but social media posts show you standing in front of the Tower of London or other foreign locale.
DHS can claim you committed immigration fraud even if you made an innocent mistake about your dates of entry to the U.S. or trips abroad.
If a U.S. border agent asks for access to your mobile phone or electronic device when you are seeking admission to the U.S., consider whether you are willing to be denied entry so as to keep your information private. To make this decision easier, be sure to delete any private information from your device before traveling to the U.S. and put your phone on airplane mode when arriving at the border or port of entry.
If a border agent asks for the password to your phone or device, you should request to enter it yourself, rather than telling your password directly to the agent. If your mobile phone or device has a great deal of private or privileged information it might be in your best interest to travel with a separate device.
Definitely take time to review the privacy settings on all your social media accounts and look for ways to keep your settings private. You might also want to review your past social media posts and delete any content that you think DHS could potentially use to contend you are a danger to national security, have committed crimes, or have committed visa fraud.
The government might still be able to access deleted posts, however. If you believe the government has collected your social media information, you might want to complete a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for your A-file to see what information the government has already collected about you.