As President Trump prepares a new executive order on vetting refugees and immigrants, one idea keeps cropping up: checking the social media accounts of those coming to the U.S.
In fact, such a program was begun under the Obama administration more than a year ago on a limited basis and is likely to be expanded. But social media vetting is a heavy lift, and it's too early to tell how effective it will be.
Leon Rodriguez, who stepped down last month as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the checks began around the end of 2015, coinciding with the rise of Syrian refugee admissions.
Until that point, only 2,000 or so Syrian refugees had been admitted to the U.S. during four years of war there. The number of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. jumped to more than 12,000 last year.
"Initially, we were focused on Syrian males who had some sort of flag in their application," said Rodriguez. Over the course of last year, his agency kept "expanding the universe of people whose social media we examined, to include larger numbers of Syrian applicants and Iraqi applicants."
The agency examined Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, he said. Most were in Arabic, and it could take an entire day to go over the file of one person, he noted. Additional staffers have been hired and trained, though it's still a limited number of applicants who receive such scrutiny.
With Trump repeatedly calling for "extreme vetting," such measures are likely to continue and could well expand, according to analysts.
Trump's initial executive order on Jan. 27, which froze immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, has been blocked by the courts, but the president has promised a new order next week.
Asking for passwords
In an interview with NPR earlier this month, John Kelly, the head of homeland security, indicated that extreme vetting might include measures like asking applicants for their social media passwords.
"Someone comes in and says, 'I want to come to the United States.' Then we ask them to give us a list of websites that they visit and the passwords to get on those websites to see what they're looking at," Kelly said.
So far, the only new wrinkle under the Trump administration has been a tweak to forms that request refugee applicants to list specific social media sites they use, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
What would constitute a red flag?
Rodriguez said that expressions of religious devotion were not an issue. But if, for example, a teenage boy in a refugee family had been watching gruesome Islamic State videos on the family computer, that would prompt an agent to take action such as putting an application on hold, if not rejecting it, Rodriguez said.
The agency also undertook a pilot program looking at the selective use of social media vetting for other categories of people coming to the U.S., beyond refugees — including, perhaps, some holding student or fiance visas.
Looking beyond refugees
While much of the recent debate has focused on refugees, they are just a tiny fraction of those coming to the U.S. They are already heavily scrutinized and have not traditionally been a source of terrorist attacks.
Rodriguez said social media vetting provided an additional tool, but he said he was comfortable with the extensive background checks conducted by multiple government agencies, which now engage in much more data-sharing than in years past.
The U.S. took in 85,000 refugees last year, the largest number since the 1990s.
That compares with more than 1 million immigrants who enter the U.S. annually. Many are coming from countries like Mexico, China, India and the Philippines and are joining family members already settled in the U.S.
Those receiving temporary visas — tourists, businesspeople and students — account for the overwhelming majority of foreigners coming to the U.S. They numbered nearly 77 million in 2015.
Temporary visas are the quickest way to get into the country with the least amount of scrutiny. Almost all the Sept. 11 hijackers came into the U.S. on tourist or student visas, which many had overstayed by the time of the attacks.
Scrutiny of temporary visitors has been ramped up dramatically since then, but many feel this remains a potential weak spot because of the huge numbers involved.
"The focus on refugees was always badly misguided," said Rodriguez. "It's totally missing the point of where our actual vulnerabilities are."