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Spying on Immigrants in 2017: How the DHS is using Social Media to Monitor American Immigrants

| Oct 19, 2017 | Firm News

If the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gets its way, the social media information of immigrants, including naturalized citizens and permanent residents, may be collected and placed in a person’s immigration file. In September 2017, DHS published a rule in the Federal Register stating its intention to add a person’s “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” to the person’s immigration history official record. This brings up issues with an individual’s privacy and the possibility of someone abusing that information.

Not a “New” Rule

DHS maintains that this rule is not “new,” but rather a clarification designed to work with rules that already exist, and to accommodate updates to the electronic system DHS uses to track immigrants. To be fair, according to the notice, DHS is classifying this information as a category, much like essential biographical information, family history, and travel history. Yet, it begs the question: why would the category be needed at all unless DHS was planning to track this information?

But the Problem is…

The fact that social media “search results” is undefined as part of the clarification means that there will be much speculation as to what could be included. Even the hint of possible government monitoring may have the effect of forcing immigrants to censor themselves all the time, limiting their freedom of speech. It may also affect U.S. citizens who interact with those immigrants on social media.

For example, if an immigrant were to take a picture with a marijuana joint in a state that has legalized its use, they could potentially be flagged for deportation. Under federal law, marijuana is still illegal, and it is also federal law that handles immigration issues. The use of drugs is a deportable offense, so being in the same picture with some marijuana could land you in trouble with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even if you didn’t use it.

Then there is the problem that faces all social media users: what is real and what is fake? In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting in 2015, numerous news outlets reported that one of the gunmen expressed extremist views on Facebook. In the end, this turned out to be false. A person’s social media persona and their real person may be two completely different things. Yet what happens if DHS was to flag someone innocent for something they may have said in the past?

There is also the question of how DHS would access this information. At a bare minimum, all users of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., should keep their accounts on maximum privacy settings. If that is not possible or feasible, the alternative is to aggressively self-monitor your presence on social media. Always be aware that what you post, no matter how private you may think it is, could potentially be accessed.


Something to keep in mind is that while social media information has been used in immigration court for quite some time, full-scale social media monitoring may be beyond the DHS’s capacity to monitor—even assuming they are not granted access to these accounts and must instead make do with what they can find on public sites. Who is going to be keeping an eye on everything going on on immigrants’ social media?

It is also notable that DHS has run pilot programs monitoring social media in the past, and the results were less than positive. Social media screening for refugees found that the social media information they were able to obtain did not allow them to identify those who actually posed a threat to national security.

Protect Yourself and Your Rights

It is certainly a difficult time to be an immigrant, to be a naturalised or permanent resident in the U.S., or to be seeking U.S. citizenship. Many things have been and continue to change under the current administration. We at Rotella & Hernandez understand this, and seek to help immigrants with the legal issues they may be faced with. Call us at 305-596-3618 today.