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Do immigration officials look at applicant's social media profiles?

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Does the federal government look at people's social media when deciding whether or not to give them a green card or a visa? Hi, I'm Jim Hacking, immigration lawyer practicing law here throughout the United States, out of our office in St. Louis, Missouri. En Español.

The issue of social media has been a hot button topic the last few weeks. The reason for this, is the husband and wife that shot up the government facility in San Bernardino, California, a terrible tragedy. Members of Congress hauled people from the immigration service in front of them, at a Judiciary Hearing last week, to ask them questions about the fiance visa, the spouse visa process. They wanted to know specifically, "Does the federal government look at an applicant's social media when deciding whether or not to give them a visa?"

We thought we'd shoot this video in order to talk about it. We've had clients, from time to time, come to see us and ask us about representing them. We've spent some time on social media, not as their friend or anything, we've just gone and checked out their story. Sometimes, we've been alarmed at what they have on their Facebook.

Case in point: We once had a pair of brothers, let's call them John and Sam. John and Sam came to see us and they brought Ann with them. The story was that Sam was a U.S. citizen, and John was married to Ann. They were trying to hire us, to help get a green card for John. When we did our own quick check of social media, specifically Facebook, we figured out that in fact, Sam the U.S. citizen, was already married to Ann and that this was a fake marriage. They had decided to try to get a green card for the non-citizen brother, John, by running a fake immigration marriage through USCIS. This was not a lot of hard work on our part. We were glad we were able to turn down the case, because these people were wanting to engage in immigration fraud. We don't want anything to do with that. That's what we do here at our office.

On a broader scale, you need to know that there's no doubt, no matter what the government said at the Congressional Hearing, no matter their claims that they never look at social media, that simply doesn't happen. We've had situations arise at the immigration service, where photos from Facebook, publicly available, posting on Facebook, have made their way into the immigration file. We've had examining officers ask our clients about things that they've posted on Facebook. Usually it's related to good moral character, not necessarily terrorist activity. Certainly not, we've never had anything like that.

On the social media front, usually they're looking at whether or not the marriage is legitimate, whether or not the person applying for a green card is a good person and deserving of a green card, deserving of lawful permanent resident status. The idea that USCIS is not looking at social media, that might be some broadly stated, unknown policy, because immigration officers around the country, regularly look at social media. They look throughout the internet, for information about the people that are applying for benefits. Don't just think that because USCIS officials said in Washington, that they don't check social media, that they don't in fact.

Another way that this can become an issue is when people come through customs. A lot of times, customs officials will ask to look at your laptops, or ask to look at your cell phone. There have been issues related to posting on social media, emails as well, in which people have said way, way, way too much about what their plans are in the United States, on social media. We've had people get pulled into secondary scrutiny at customs. I'm not saying that they're pulled out of the line to get in the United States because of social media. What I'm saying is, sometimes things begin to unravel and custom officials have been known to ask to look at people's cellphones. When they unlock the cellphone and get into Facebook, they see plans that are inconsistent with the visa that the person has applied for.

For example, we were contacted recently about someone who was coming on a B1B2 visa. Now, under that visa, they're not supposed to be working, but when they came through customs, custom officials saw that they had posted on social media that they were coming to work as a nanny for their cousin, and they didn't really have the plan to go back after six months.

Don't think that the USCIS or government officials are not looking at social media. It happens every day. It happens and it causes big problems for people, so don't believe the hype. They're definitely looking at social media. If you're applying for an immigration benefit, you want to make sure that your social media profile is locked up. You want to make sure that your not saying anything on there that's inconsistent with the benefit that you're asking for. Don't be trying to get a spouse visa, if you are showing yourself partying out with other people, showing your own romantic situation with someone other than your spouse. These are things that will trip you up.

If you have questions about social media, if you have questions about what you should do with your Facebook account, give us a call here at 314-961-8200, or you can email us, [email protected]. Thanks a lot.

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