Via Law360

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security‘s proposal to collect social media handles from foreign citizens has been met with backlash from civil rights and higher education groups that caution it will chill free speech and discourage international students from studying in the U.S.

DHS had indicated in September that the department planned to begin asking for information on foreign citizens’ social media accounts for the past five years on visa applications and traveler forms, opening its proposal up for public comment through Nov. 4.

But in dozens of comments filed over the following two months, national civil rights and legal and immigrant advocacy organizations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association and American Civil Liberties Union, have urged DHS to withdraw that proposal, warning that it could suppress protected free speech and promote self-censorship.

“The proposed rule may pressure applicants to engage in self-censorship like deleting their accounts, disassociating with online connections, limiting their social media postings, or sanitizing their internet presence for fear of reprisal,” more than 40 organizations wrote in comments on the proposal.

This would affect not only foreign citizens seeking immigration benefits, like green cards, or considering a visit to the U.S., but also the American citizens who communicate with them online, the groups said.

“Consider, for example, how an American citizen who wants her brother in Iraq to visit or emigrate might think twice before posting tweets criticizing U.S. policy or remaining Facebook friends with someone who does,” the organizations wrote.

Their joint comment is one of 80 filed responding to DHS’ proposal to collect the additional information under President Donald Trump’s March 2017 executive order to ramp up screening and vetting practices.

The U.S. Department of State, which processes visa requests made from foreign citizens looking to move to the U.S. from abroad, already requests this information, after updating its forms in June.

DHS’ proposal would authorize U.S. Customs and Border Protection to request social media handles from any foreign citizen entering the U.S.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes visa petitions from within the U.S., would also ask for social media handles on permanent residency applications, applications for U.S. citizenship, and asylum and refugee applications.

Social media accounts that foreigners would need to disclose include Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, TwitterLinkedIn, MySpace, Reddit and YouTube. Vine, a video platform that was shut down in 2017, is included on the list, while TikTok, a newer short-video platform, is not listed.

DHS could not, under the proposal, request passwords for social media accounts. Immigration officers also may not follow or friend request users to gain access to private account information.

But the ACLU and other organizations argued that this will nonetheless undermine the ability to communicate anonymously online, which could be important for political activists or members of the LGBTQ community who hail from countries where they may not be safe to identify themselves publicly.

In its own comments, the New York City mayor’s office also raised privacy concerns, saying that it is “committed to upholding privacy protections for New Yorkers irrespective of their citizenship or immigration status.”

The Harvard Law School Immigration Project and Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program flagged a recent incident that made national news when a Palestinian student at Harvard College was denied entry to the U.S. because of political messages posted by his “friends” on social media, even though he had not posted any political messages on his own account.

“This example illustrates the potential dangers of the department’s proposed policy,” the school’s immigration clinic wrote in their comment. “If noncitizens can be denied admission or an immigration benefit based on their friends’ social media activity over the past five years, many would likely refrain from engaging in associational activity freely on social media or even from using social media at all — which in turn would seriously and impermissibly burden their First Amendment right of free association.”

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, the American Council on Education and other higher education associations also warned that the social media collection would deter foreign students from attending American universities.

It would likely also “further strain” USCIS’ resources, one group of education associations said, referencing recent work authorization processing delays for the Optional Practical Training program, which gives foreign citizens who just graduated from U.S. universities one extra year to live and work in the U.S.

“The goals of protecting our security while ensuring that the United States remains the destination of choice for the world’s best and brightest students, faculty and scholars are not mutually exclusive,” the associations wrote.

A DHS spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

–Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.