US set to request five years of social media history for all visa applicants

The move is part of the president's proposed "extreme vetting."

March 29, 2018, 5:59 PM

The Trump administration is seeking to change visa applications to require all applicants to turn over five years of social media history.

The move is a major expansion of President Donald Trump's effort to implement "extreme vetting" and change how immigrants and visitors to the U.S. are processed.

The proposed new rule would require foreigners applying for a visa to include their social media usernames on various platforms including Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, as well as previous email addresses, phone numbers, international travel — all from the last five years.

The State Department, which filed a notice of the proposed change, estimates it will affect 14.71 million applicants, including those who apply as students, for business trips, or on vacation.

"Maintaining robust screening standards for visa applicants is a dynamic practice that must adapt to emerging threats," State Department spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs Virginia Elliott told ABC News. "Collecting this additional information from visa applicants will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."

Last May, the administration changed procedures to allow consular officers who process applicants at U.S. missions around the world to request more information from applicants if they had suspicions or doubts. For the first time, they included social media accounts, as well as prior passport numbers, greater detail about family members, and longer personal history, including travel, employment, and residence for the last 15 years, instead of the last five that applicants were already asked for.

But now, every applicant will be required to include five years of social media usernames on their application – some 15 million foreigners who apply for U.S. visas each year – although certain diplomatic and official visa applicants would usually be exempt.

Prior to the terror attack in San Bernardino that killed 14 people, the U.S. generally did not allow officials to check social media postings of applicants due to civil liberties concerns, ABC News first reported at the time. That meant that officials missed evidence of one of the shooter's radicalization online.

In the aftermath of that attack, Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," before pivoting his campaign to a platform of "extreme vetting," but offering few details.

Once in office, he has tried to turn that rhetoric into policy, first with an executive order signed one week into his presidency that banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. When that ban was challenged in court and tied up, the administration issued a second and third version -- the latest of which still remains contested in the judicial system.

Trump also halted the entire refugee admissions program for months, before then temporarily barring refugees from 11 countries. Once those bans lifted, the administration said it had implemented new, more stringent vetting procedures, but declined to give details. It now has the lowest refugee admission cap in the program's history and, halfway through the fiscal year, is well below meeting even that mark.

Thursday's proposed changes also mean that immigrant visa applicants from countries where female genital mutilation or cutting is prevalent would have to check a box to indicate they have been told the practice is illegal in the U.S. FGM is a non-medical procedure that involves the "partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs," common in some cultures in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, according to the World Health Organization.

The practice has been illegal in the U.S. since 1996, and since then, non-immigrant visa applicants have been provided similar information -- a requirement of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

There is now a 60-day window for public comments on the proposal that starts Friday and after which time, the rule could be implemented.