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Applying for Immigration Benefits? Your Social Media Accounts Could Be in the Spotlight

Social media apps

Closeup of social media applications on a smart phone

The Department of Homeland Security will soon be collecting social media information from approximately 33 million immigrants annually who apply for permission to enter or stay in the United States as well as those applying to become U.S. citizens. Questions about social media accounts and user names will be added to applications and USCIS forms in the coming weeks.

Why the Change?

DHS attributes the change to President Trump’s Executive Order 13780, which sought to improve security by creating additional scrutiny for people who want to enter the United States. People familiar with Trump’s “heavy vetting” rhetoric may understand where this change is coming from.

“U.S. Government departments and agencies involved in screening and vetting, to include DHS, identified the collection of social media user identifications (also known as usernames, identifiers, or ‘handles’) and associated publicly available social media platforms used by the applicant during the past five years, as important for identity verification, immigration and national security vetting,” states the DHS notice published on September 4.

In the past, DHS officials have used publicly available social media information to determine an applicant’s eligibility, but only now have they begun to consider forcing applicants to give up that information.

Which Sites Are of Interest?

DHS said they picked the social media websites of interest based on their global presence. These include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit, Tumbler, Pinterest and ten others.

Another DHS notice published in the Federal Register said immigrants will be made to include their current and past phone numbers and email addresses as well as other biographical data points.

Which Forms Will Be Impacted?

For immigration forms, the policy change will affect:

  • Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
  • Form I-131, Application for Travel Document
  • Form I-192, Application for Advance Permission to Enter as a Nonimmigrant
  • Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
  • Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal
  • Form I-590, Registration for Classification as Refugee

The change will also impact the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, Form I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record, and the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS).

While the policy change raises privacy concerns for immigrants, DHS asserts that it will only review the information that is publicly available. By setting social media accounts to “private”, immigrants can minimize the amount of information available to DHS.

F-1 Students: ICE STEM OPT Site Inspections Are Underway

visa page

A closeup view of two U.S. visa pages and one pen

Recent reports show Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun making workplace visits in businesses that employ F-1 students in optional practical training (OPT) in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Though ICE was allotted the right to inspect businesses that support OPT in 2016 to make sure they are complying with STEM OPT regulations, the agency only recently began conducting inspections. A company employing STEM OPT workers should be prepared in case ICE visits the office.

How Do People Know if ICE Is Coming?

ICE will usually give 48 hours’ written notice before they come to a place of business, though they may come unannounced if they’re responding to a complaint or have evidence that the company is not complying with STEM OPT regulations.

An inspection may include interviews with personnel, a discussion of the immigrant’s training plan and its implementation, and a review of his or her skills work in relation to the STEM degree. ICE may also view F-1 employee work areas or request a tour of the property.

Why ICE Wants to Check-In

Though there is no evidence to support that foreign students are a risk to the employment opportunities of people born in the U.S., the Trump administration has tried to complicate the OPT experience. In April 2018, USCIS changed its website to prohibit OPT students from working for third-parties.

The May 2016 STEM OPT regulation, which granted ICE the power to check in on F-1 employers, states ICE wants to know if the students are getting paid according to regulation. However, there’s a concern ICE will use these visits to target the students instead of their employers. Companies should be prepared with documentation to aid in these visits.

Specific penalties for employer violations are not described in the regulations, but many claim that violations may create risks for students.

On the Forms I-983, which employers complete to disclose information on their handling of OPT students, the employers accept that DHS may deny, revoke, or terminate the STEM OPT of students whom DHS decides are not complying with the law. This poses a greater risk for the students, who may be taken from their work, than their employers, whose punishments are not clearly defined.

Are Public Assistance Benefits Standing Between You and Your Green Card?

A permanent resident green card and a social security card

On Friday Oct. 12, three federal courts blocked one of the Trump administration’s most aggressive measures to curb legal immigration. The DHS regulation, which was planned to go into effect in mid-October, would have denied immigrants who receive assistance like SNAP or Medicaid from obtaining a green card. Since Aug. 14, when DHS released the controversial measure, it was feared that on Oct. 15 the final rule on the public charge ground of inadmissibility would go into effect. But, with three days to spare, the measure has been enjoined.

What Was the Controversial Regulation?

The rule did not change the law, but rather outlined a new interpretation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which already allows DHS or JOI to deny visa applications on the grounds that the individual is a public charge. The INA states what determines a public charge is largely decided by the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of the application.

This has meant in the past that immigrants got denied when the government feared the individual would be unable to support themselves without federal assistance. However, Trump’s attempted regulation would have made “public charge” relate to any immigrant who receives one or more designated public benefit for more than 12 months in a 36-month period.

Under Trump’s new reading, DHS would have only considered the individual’s benefits when determining if public benefits should make them ineligible for a visa. The benefits received by members of the individual’s family would not have been considered.

Who Blocked It?

On Friday Oct. 12, representing another defeat for the Trump administration, Judge George Daniels of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the administration from enforcing their “public charge” rule. 

A Washington state federal judge also blocked the regulation nationwide, and a third district court judge in San Francisco said the Trump administration could not enforce the rule within the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Which Benefits Would Have Made Immigrants Public Charges?

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a list of benefits that would have deemed someone a public charge. Some of them include:

  • Federal state, local or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance (often called “General Assistance”)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (including Moderate Rehabilitation)
  • Federally funded Medicaid

Which Benefits Would Have Not Made Immigrants Public Charges?

Under this regulation, not all benefits would have deemed someone a public charge. There were some excluded benefits that would not block a visa application. These included:

  • Medicaid for an emergency medical condition
  • Medicaid provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • School-based services or benefits given to people who are at or below the oldest age-eligible for secondary education as determined under state or local law
  • Medicaid received when under 21
  • Medicaid received by a pregnant woman and during the 60-day period beginning on the last day of the pregnancy

Why Was the Public Charge Rule Blocked?

Daniels stated in his ruling, “The Rule is simply a new agency policy of exclusion in search of a justification. It is repugnant to the American dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work and upwards mobility.”

Like similar Trump immigration regulations in the past, this appeared to the judges to be an excuse to exclude people who otherwise would have lawfully been allowed visas. They saw it as a counter to American values, an opinion which could be supported by Ken Cuccinelli’s, Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, anecdotal rereading of “The New Colossus” poem inside the Statue to Liberty.

“Give me your tired your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he told NPR in August.

Will This Regulation Resurface?

While this intended regulation has been blocked, there are other ways the Trump administration has worked to illegalize previously legal forms of immigration. On Oct. 4, the Trump administration issued an 800-page proclamation that will deny immigrants seeking visas if they are unable to afford health insurance.

The “Presidential Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Will Financially Burden the United States Healthcare System” is planned to go into effect on Nov. 7, that is if federal judges don’t block this new regulation as well.

The ruling would allow the government to only accept visa petitions made abroad if the applicant could prove they will be financially secure enough to get health insurance within a month of their arrival the U.S. If they would unable to pay for insurance, the immigrant would have would have to prove they would have the financial resources to pay “reasonably foreseeable medical costs.”

Immigration activists have denounced this regulation. 

Recent Study: Here’s How Americans Feel About Immigrants in the US

filling out a survey form

A man is filling out a survey form

With the current polarizing political climate, it’s easy to assume Americans on the right and left agree on nothing. But according to a Pew Research study, members of the public on both sides of the spectrum agree on one of the most divisive topics: immigration.

Where Do Americans Agree?

The study, conducted by the Pew Research Foundation from July 22 to Aug. 4, surveyed 4,175 U.S. adults on a variety of immigration issues. The study found Americans tend to agree, regardless of political party, that the current state of immigration is subpar, and there needs to be a way to improve it without jeopardizing the potential for legal immigration. 

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say the federal government is doing very bad (38%) or somewhat bad (27%) at handling the number of people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border. The study shows that just 33% say the government is doing a good job.

The study also found the public supports stemming the flow of people to the border. According to Pew Research, 74% say it is somewhat important to reduce the number of people coming to the U.S. to seek asylum. Also, 72% of Americans think immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally if certain conditions are met. This is consistent with the U.S.’s popular support for legal immigration.

The study found 86% of Americans think it is either very important (52%) or somewhat important (34 %) to increase the number of judges handling asylum cases, which could be read as a public response to the blocked up immigration courts.

Where Do Americans Disagree?

But, of course, Americans don’t agree on everything. The study also found plenty of areas where peoples’ opinions were largely determined by party.

Disagreements were often made over how the government should handle the increase in asylum seekers. Whereas 71% of Democrats say it is very important for asylum seekers to be given safe and sanitary conditions, only 32% of Republicans agree. Most Republicans (77%) think it’s important to make it harder for asylum seekers to be granted legal status, while just a third of Democrats say the same.

Overall, significantly more Republicans than Democrats believe it is very important to reduce the number of people coming to seek asylum, with 65% of Republicans saying it is very important and only 24% of Democrats agreeing.

Are Trumps New Immigration Rules Un-American?

Two Feet With Yellow Line

Two feet standing on each side of a yellow line

On Wednesday, Aug. 14, the Department of Homeland Security published the final rule “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds.” The rule states that as of Oct. 15, DHS may consider an immigrant’s reliance or likelihood to become reliant on public benefits, such as SNAP or Section 8 Housing, to determine if the person should gain legal status. Continue reading