The US secretary of state has ordered embassies to conduct mandatory reviews of visa applicants’ social media activities if they have ever been present in territories controlled by Islamic State, according to diplomatic memos.
The US government also ordered enhanced screening, including a request for social media handles used by applicants in the past five years, for unspecified populations warranting “increased scrutiny”, but that advice has been suspended for the time being, according to the memos.
The memos, which were reported by Reuters, indicate the scope of the current US presidential administration’s plans for additional immigration controls, something US IT companies fear could restrict their access to the overseas pools of talent upon which they currently depend.
Critics have condemned the measures as overly broad and representing arbitrary biases rather than any real way to improve to security.
The review of visa applicants’ social media usage adds to what privacy advocates say is already an excessive demand of personal data on those travelling to the US.
While the memos implement some social media checks, they rescind much broader social media scrutiny that would apply to every applicant from a list of Middle Eastern countries, something that could mean lengthy delays to an already complex process.
The US issued 10 million visas in 2016 alone.
The memos, or cables, were sent by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson to all US embassies overseas, and relate to the implementation of immigration restrictions by the incoming presidential administration, specifically an executive order issued on 6 March and set to take effect on 16 March.
That order followed a broader decree from January, and both have met with court challenges that mean they are not currently in effect.
As a result, the series of cables first lays out steps for implementing the executive order, then rescinds many of the previous measures.
Amongst the actions left in place in a 17 March memo is an order that applicants who have “ever been present in an ISIS-controlled territory” be referred for a “mandatory social media review”.
The same memo specifies that in the case of Iraqi nationals applying with an Iraqi passport, consular officials pay particular attention to whether the applicant was ever present in an Islamic State-controlled area.
Another measure left intact is an oder for embassies to immediately develop a list of criteria identifying “sets of post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny”.
Given the adminstration’s efforts to stem or bar immigration from Muslim-majority countries, immigration lawyers said they fear such guidance will effectively mean discrimination on the basis of race or religion.
Other measures proposed by the memos, but not yet enacted, could mean broad screening of the social media usage of individuals from particular Middle eastern countries – specifically, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
One memo specifies that embassies should ask applicants from those countries a list of particular questions, including requesting a list of social media handles used in the past five years.
The final memo, dated 17 March, rescinds that measure, saying the list hadn’t yet been approved by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The measures laid out in the memo are preliminary, with further screening measures to follow as government agencies build on the recommendations of the executive order, in accordance with court decisions, the memo states.
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