U.S. Alert – New State Dept. Form Asks Certain Visa Applicants ‘Supplemental Questions’ Regarding Social Media Usage

New State Dept. Form Asks Certain Visa Applicants ‘Supplemental Questions’ Regarding Social Media Usage

A new Department of State form, DS-5535, for visa applicants asks supplemental questions of “[i]mmigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities,” according to a related Federal Register notice. A wide variety of organizations are expressing concerns about the new form and its use.

The form’s questions include where the applicant has traveled outside his or her country of residence in the last 15 years, with “details for each trip, including locations visited, date visited, source of funds, and length of stay.” The form also asks for information about any passports other than those listed in the visa application; full names and dates of birth of any siblings; children; current or previous spouse or civil/domestic partner; addresses where the applicant has lived during the last 15 years; phone numbers, including “primary, secondary, work, home, and mobile numbers,” used over the last 5 years; email addresses used over the past 5 years, including “primary, secondary, work, personal, and educational”; usernames for any websites or social media applications used to create or share content, including photos, videos, and status updates, over the last 5 years (the form does not ask for passwords); and employers, job descriptions, and job titles over the last 15 years.

The Federal Register notice announcing the new form explains that most of this information is already collected on visa applications but for a shorter time period; for example, 5 years rather than 15 years. The notice states that requests for names and dates of birth of siblings and, for some applicants, children are new. The request for social media identifiers and associated platforms is also new for the Department of State, although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) already collects such information on a “voluntary basis” from certain individuals. The notice explains that applicants may be asked to provide details of their international or domestic (within their country of nationality) travel, if it appears to the consular officer that the applicant has been in an area while the area was under the operational control of a terrorist organization. Applicants “may be asked to recount or explain the details of their travel, and when possible, provide supporting documentation.”

Reaction. A number of organizations sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of State expressing their concerns about the new form. Among other things, the letter acknowledges the need to secure the United States, but cautions that there is also a need to remain open to those pursuing academic study and scientific research. The letter states that the notice is likely to have a “chilling effect” not only on those required to submit additional information but indirectly on all international travelers coming to the United States. According to the letter, the notice also provides insufficient information on the criteria for identifying those required to complete the supplemental form, the effect of unintentional incomplete disclosure, and remedies for correcting information initially provided. “These additional questions could lead to unacceptably long delays in processing, which are particularly harmful to applicants with strict activity timeframes or enrollment deadlines,” the letter notes, adding that no information is provided about the longer-term use, retention, or privacy protections for the information provided. The letter asks that the State Department publish an additional notice with this and other information.

The letter notes that scientific exchanges, whether through long- or short-term visits or at professional society meetings, are vitally important to the United States. Many project collaboration meetings take place at conferences held in the United States, and not having the top international talent in attendance “would be a significant problem,” the letter states. “Scientists must periodically meet in person, and if bureaucratic hurdles for entry into the United States are too high, they will hold their meetings elsewhere, hurting U.S. economic, technological, and scientific competitiveness.” For example, the letter notes, the “American Geophysical Union and the American Physical Society both have strong international counterparts that hold regular conferences and meetings, and the collaborators could well turn to those venues instead.”

Moreover, the letter notes, many U.S. professional societies have significant numbers of international members, and it is important for those individuals to be able to attend the U.S. societies’ meetings. The letter cites a 2012 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers noting that nearly 1.8 million meetings (not all scientific) were held in the United States during 2009 involving “an estimated 205 million participants and generat[ing] more than $263 billion in direct spending and $907 billion in total industry output.” The attendance of international scientists at U.S. meetings and conferences “is important in terms of the intellectual content they contribute, for the benefit to the United States from the formation and sustainment of partnerships with U.S. counterparts, and in terms of benefits to the U.S. economy,” the letter notes.

The letter was signed by 55 U.S. professional associations and other entities, including the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the Society of Engineering Science.

The OMB approved the new form on an emergency basis for six months. The form is at https://tr.usembassy.gov/supplemental-questions-visa-applicants-ds-5535/. The Federal Register notice explaining who will use the form and why is at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/05/04/2017-08975/notice-of-information-collection-under-omb-emergency-review-supplemental-questions-for-visa. The letter from U.S. professional associations and other entities expressing concerns about the form is at http://www.nafsa.org/_/file/_/amresource/DS5535Comment051817.pdf.