Attention Syrian Refugees: U.S. Is Looking into Your Facebook Accounts

By Nayla Rush, February 12, 2016

The exploitation of U.S. refugee and visa programs by potential terrorists was the subject of a hearing last week before the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Throughout the hearing – titled "Crisis of Confidence: Preventing Terrorist Infiltration through U.S. Refugee And Visa Programs" – government officials in charge of visa controls and national security elaborated on the use of social media as an added screening tool for refugees and K1 fiancé visa applicants. This measure, in its initial pilot stage, should be expanded to all 10,000 Syrian refugees admitted this year, as well as Iraqi refugees and eventually all immigrants. For now, officers are conducting manual social media vetting, but experts are looking for technological solutions for the longer term.

Based on the following excerpts from the witness statements, here's the deal. The U.S. government is going to hire more people, spend more money, deploy more resources to vet more and more immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees (unaccompanied minors from Central America have just been added to the list of people we "need" to bring in). And this, despite the fact that the system is already backlogged, staff is overwhelmed, and the budget is tight. As usual, it is the American citizen and the legal immigrant who will pick up the tab in order to keep up with this administration's overseas humanitarian enthusiasms.

Regarding social media, here's Leon Rodriguez, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS):

What we are doing right now, and these efforts are focused on Syrians [refugees], is that in those cases in which there are flags of – element of concern in a case, we do a social media review, in those cases, to further develop and determine whether there's any information in social media which helps us resolve that case, either derogatory information that would lead, possibly, to a denial, or that would satisfy us that the individual was okay.

We are building, as quickly as we can, to build to a point where we would, in fact, be screening the entire body of Syrian refugee applicants...

What we're building toward, in very quick order, including with the necessary both training and linguistic capacity to do this kind of review, is to use that across not only all Syrians, but also across all Iraqis, as well.

So, in the short term, we're going to be focusing adding as quickly as we can, just for the Syrians, as soon as possible, so we cover as much of that 10,000 that we're seeking to admit this year, as we can. Longer term, we're looking for technological solutions that will permit us to look at that more broadly. And I don't know what the timeline's going to be for actually identifying and deploying those technological solutions more broadly.

Right now, we are conducting manual vetting. In other words, we're literally just going into Facebook and Google and other sources to identify the social media information. That's very slow going.

And that's – we will – we will start deploying that capacity, as we start hiring and training folks. We will be doing that in very short order. More importantly, we're gonna be looking at using social media across all other immigration categories, as well…We're looking at using, when we see people, for example, at the time of adjustment, there may be opportunities to do that work further at that stage, as well.

With regards to additional staff and resources needed to implement this measure, the U.S. government is going to have to rely on contractors, particularly linguists. Francis Taylor, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at Homeland Security, elaborated on the subject:

At the beginning, we probably won't have enough capability on board in the government to do this robustly, and that we will have to do some contracting, particularly for linguists. When one's talking about social media, all social media is not in English. So we need language skills and those sorts of things, which are more readily available, initially, in the private sector. But long term, I think we will build a capability that mirrors our department's responsibility to review this type of data and do so with government employees that are trained and able to do it. But my sense is the initial investment will be heavily contractor.

As for the added cost, Michele Bond, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs at the State Department, reminded us that: "In the case of the State Department's Consular work, we are fee-funded. And we would be able to find the resources, if we needed to amp them up."

So, all you refugees and immigrants out there, you've been warned. You'd better have a "clean" official Facebook account under your real name if you want to make it into the United States. But no worries, you have time to get your act together. Though if you're using a pseudonym, you may not need to bother...