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New visa hurdle - Social-media posts may doom US travel chances, says lawyer

Published:Tuesday | June 4, 2019 | 12:35 AMLivern Barrett/Senior Staff Reporter

A new mandatory requirement for Jamaicans and other citizens across the globe to disclose all the social-media platforms they have visited in the last five years, along with their user names, when they apply for American visas will have a “chilling effect” on free speech, a Jamaica-born immigration attorney based in the United States (US) has said.

The assertion by Dahlia Walker Huntington came yesterday after the American Embassy in Kingston confirmed that the application forms for immigrant and non-immigrant visas have been updated by the State Department in Washington to request additional information from most applicants, including what it describes as “social-media identifiers” on popular portals such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The stipulation will affect the more than 14 million non-immigrant visa applicants that jostle for Washington’s stamp of approval every year. Diplomatic and some official-type visa applicants will be exempted.

Announced by the Trump administration more than a year ago, the new protocol took effect last Friday, May 31.

According to reports, the new form questions whether applicants have a “social-media presence and asks them to select from a list provided each social-media platform they have used within the last five years.

“In the space next to the platform’s name, enter the username or handle you have used on that platform,” it reportedly asks, while making it clear that passwords should not be provided.

The embassy did not provide details about the changes to the visa application forms, but explained that national security was a major consideration. “Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity,” it said in a statement.

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveller and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening,” the statement said.

“We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens while supporting legitimate travel to the United States. In keeping in line with advances with technology, our visa applications have been updated to incorporate these changes,” it added.

But while acknowledging that applicants for immigrant visas have to undergo a detailed background check, Walker Huntington said the new requirement raises a number of important questions.

“If it’s for national security and you are asking for my screen name on Twitter so you can go back and look at all my tweets that I have done and whether or not I have been critical of the administration, the question is how far is too far, and is what I’ve said going to make me ineligible for a visa?” she questioned.

“Where does the line get drawn and who draws the line ... meaning where does the line get drawn in terms of how far is too far for you to go to criticise the government or to criticise the leadership or the administration, and who is going to make that determination?” she asked.

Added Walker Huntington:”It’s gonna have a chilling effect on free speech because if you are going to post something critical of the US government, something critical of the leaders of the United States, how is that going to be viewed in terms of your desirability as a visitor or permanent resident in the US?”

The irony, she said, is that the new move reeks of hypocrisy “when your country is founded on free speech, but you are going to review what people posts on social media”.

The prominent immigration attorney acknowledged that there are radicals across the world who use social media – and the Internet, more broadly – to incite violence against US citizens or at American landmarks, but suggested that there are other methods to collect information on them.

As a word of caution, she warned Jamaicans to be “conscious and aware” of their social-media habits.

“In terms of what your long-term goals are, be conscious and aware that this policy is out there,” Walker Huntington said.

From fiscal year 2013 to 2016, the number of US visa applications by Jamaicans rose from approximately 85,000 per year to 185,000 per year.