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US Dept. of State begins vetting student visa applicants’ social media

The US Department of State is requesting social media identifiers from international students as they apply for visas to study in the country as part of a vetting process that it says will protect US citizens.

Applicants are being asked to share social media profiles from around 20 platforms they may have used in the previous five years. Photo: Flickr

Additional identifiers will be added at a later date

But NAFSA has indicated the additional screening will have a negative impact on the USA’s international education industry, while stakeholders fear the move may result in even longer delays for visa issuance.

“This would be particularly harmful to applicants with strict activity timelines or enrollment deadlines”

Since May 31, visa applicants have been asked to share social media profiles from around 20 social media platforms.

In a statement, a spokesperson from the State Department noted that national security is its top priority when adjudicating visa applications.

“Every prospective traveller and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” they said.

Currently, the updated forms collect social media identifiers from Ask FM; Douban; Facebook; Flickr; Google+; Instagram, LinkedIn; MySpace; Pinterest; QZone; Reddit; Sina Weibo; Tencent Weibo; Tumblr; Twitter; Twoo; Vine; Vkontakte; YouKu, and YouTube.

Collecting additional information helps to confirm the identity of applicants, and additional identifiers will be added at a later date, the spokesperson added.

But according to Jill Welch, NAFSA’s deputy executive director for Public Policy, the additional requirements will have a negative impact on higher education and scientific collaborations.

“Requiring every immigrant and nonimmigrant applicant to provide up to five years of social media accounts, telephone numbers, and email addresses, along with travel history, is likely to stifle the flow of future international travel to the United States,” Welch explained.

The application and adjudication process time may be significantly extended, possibly leading to “extremely long” delays, she said.

“This would be particularly harmful to applicants with strict activity timelines or enrollment deadlines.

“There is also no clear rationale presented for the change, nor any statement regarding the longer-term use, retention, or privacy protections for the information collected,” she added.

The update is a result of president Trump’s 2017 Executive Order regarding implementing uniform screening and vetting standards for visa applications.

Trump also recently announced a “bold” immigration plan, which promises to introduce a point-based merit system, prioritise the immediate families of US citizens and new immigrants, while fully securing the country’s border.

“If the US government wants to sweep data from these sites into its vetting process… then additional complications and delays will likely be imposed on an already complicated and lengthy process,” George F. Kacenga, executive director of Global Engagement at Purdue University Northwest and AIRC president told The PIE News.

“We are approaching the threshold at which international students may begin to focus more energy and interest on non-US destinations.”

“This formalises a reality that everyone should be aware of”

Evaluating how the vetting of social media accounts of prospective students will impact the sector will depend on the details, Kacenga explained, adding that several questions about the nuances of the social media-vetting system remain.

“What terms and content will be screened for, and will the screening criteria be well-defined or appear arbitrary to applicants? How expeditiously can thorough screening be carried out?” Kacenga asked.

“Answers to these questions will determine stress levels among potential applicants, which will determine whether students will be put off from applying to the US, which, in turn, will determine the vetting policy’s positivity or negativity for the US international education industry,” he said.

Anna Wise, associate director of International Recruitment at Towson University and recruitment liaison for MIEC and Study Maryland also questioned how the vetting may impact F-1 visa applicants.

“I think it can be perceived as adding to the perception of barriers to international students studying in the US, but I would stress the fact that social media accounts have always been subject to review by consular officers if there was a reason for concern,” she told The PIE.

“This formalises a reality that everyone should be aware of: what we talk about online is often in the public domain, and is part of our virtual footprint.

“For students and scholars seeking to study in the US, as long as their intentions are genuine and they have not posted dangerous (violent or threatening content online within the past five years, there should be no issue,” she added.

This policy might have been inevitable, according to Mark Overmann vice president of External Affairs at InterExchange.

“Social media is here to stay,” he said.

“International students may begin to focus more energy and interest on non-US destinations”

” We hope that the State Department has been given adequate resources to comb through this amount of data, especially non-English language accounts, to make it an effective screening tool and not cause unnecessary visa delays,” he noted.

“Ultimately we have to wait and see what impact this has. The social media policy will be one more ball in the visa adjudication hopper and it could be hard to pin down its actual impact.”

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