The Trump administration wants to tighten the rules for people seeking visas to enter the United States. If the Office of Budget Management approves the rules after a 60-day comment period, nearly all applicants would be required to provide their social media identities and email addresses for the previous five years.
They also would be required to provide telephone numbers and a history of their international travel, as well as information about whether they have been deported from any country or have any relatives engaged in terrorist activities.
This form of “extreme vetting” would be meant to catch would-be terrorists who were careless enough to post their intentions online, or whose travel history might be difficult to explain as normal.
But it would cast an awfully wide net unlikely to catch many serious problems. We imagine terrorists bent on causing serious harm would find ways to build false and deceptively clean social media trails. State Department officials vetting them might not have the ability to find accounts people fail to note on their applications.
The biggest problem, however, may lie in the burden this requirement would add to State Department consular staff, which already is overburdened in many parts of the world. The U.S. embassy in Beijing, for instance, handles between 3,000 and 4,000 visa applicants per day. Adding this new set of requirements to all those applicants would greatly slow the process, creating huge backlogs.
The irony is the president has submitted a 2019 budget to Congress that would cut the State Department’s budget by a third. While Congress isn’t likely to approve that request any time soon (the request is similar to that of the president’s previous year’s budget), the added requirements would suggest a large increase in the budget, instead.
Currently, consular employees are required to collect social media information only when they determine it is needed, either to confirm a person’s identity or because of some other suspicion. That seems a more prudent approach.
The ACLU has objected to the proposed new rules, saying they would chill freedom of speech and association by making people afraid their social media posts will be misconstrued by a government official. That’s a weak argument. People ought to be aware that anything they post to social media could be seen by potential employers, bosses, co-workers or anyone else in authority.2 comments on this story
But the net result of a blanket rule requiring a review of social media posts likely would be fewer applicants wanting to visit the United States. That includes students in exchange programs, people on pleasure trips and business professionals. Not because they intend to do harm, but because they might not wish to give an official from a foreign government their social media identities.
Nearly 15 million people apply for U.S. visas annually. The nation benefits by having peaceful visitors see the United States and experience its culture.
Terrorism is an international scourge that must be taken seriously. But it also must be handled in a smart and efficient way. This new rule doesn’t meet that test.