President Obama said Friday that social media is already part of the Homeland Security Department’s screening process when deciding to issue visas, but his top immigration officials told Congress earlier this week that’s not really true.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it is running a pilot program and only “thousands” of applicants have had their social media presence scrutinized as part of their applications for immigration benefits, but it’s a small fraction of the millions of visas and other immigration applications the government approves each year.
USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez told Congress on Thursday that the information the agency been gathering hasn’t been particularly helpful.
“Right now, the things that we’ve seen so far are relatively ambiguous,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “They would not necessarily lead you to conclude that the individual would trigger inadmissibility. Under our laws, they would require further inquiry.”
Mr. Obama suggested differently in his year-end press conference, saying applicants are being screened.
“It’s important to distinguish between posts that are public — social media on a Facebook page — versus private communications through various social media or apps. Our law enforcement and intelligence professions are constantly monitoring public posts, and that is part of the visa review process — that people are investigating what individuals have said publicly and questioned about any statements that they maybe made,” the president said.
He said going after private direct messages between people is tougher and that it’s harder “by definition” to obtain that information.
Mr. Obama said he is pushing to work with the technology community to see what help it may need to scrutinize some of those private communications, consistent with U.S. privacy laws.
That was met with bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers were shocked that more social media isn’t being reviewed and where anger is growing with administration assurances that they have the situation under control.
“That’s our frustration,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Democrat, told administration officials during Thursday’s hearing.
“I wouldn’t hire anyone today in my official capacity or my unofficial capacity where I don’t do a Facebook check or social media check,” she said.
Homeland Security officials said they had concerns about invading privacy, but lawmakers insisted that social media activities of foreigners were fair game.
“The U.S. Constitution does not extend privacy protections to foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat. “You need to not just have a few pilot programs. It needs to be a policy of our government to look at social media and other publicly available information of people seeking entry into the United States.”
Homeland Security officials were trying to combat a story by ABC News last week that reported the department had a “secret” policy prohibiting checks of social media. Officials denied there was such ban.
But the department refused to implement a proactive screening policy written by a top anti-fraud official in 2011, according to a 2014 report in The Washington Times.