Ann Elise McCaffrey, Esq.


from the world of immigration law and defense

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How Immigration Authorities Collect Information on You

The Department of Homeland Security announcement in September 2017 that all social media info and online search results will be collected by the different agencies in the Department of Homeland Security and permanently stored in an individual’s “A file.” DHS includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Social media and online searches (not yet defined) will be gathered on all people who are not yet U.S. citizens and are applying for visas, immigration benefits and citizenship. Some feel that this kind of data gathering opens the door to 1st Amendment violations – to restricted freedom of speech.

However, the new data collection practices will go beyond what views you express online or what you “like”; other kinds of information will be stored too. “Publicly available information obtained from the internet, public records, public institutions, interviews, commercial data providers, and information shared obtained through information sharing agreements” will also be sought out by DHS agencies and saved in an A file. The contents of the A file can be shared with whatever other government agencies or law enforcement bodies that DHS wants. See the Federal Register Notice here. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been using data collection services provided by other companies to conduct raids and deportations for the past decade. Read this. This agency has plans to increase the number of deportations through more advanced data collection.

The full picture of what “commercial data providers” or “information sharing agreements” includes is not certain, but I would assume a lot. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “ICE” uses information from cell phone companies to help locate individuals through their cell phone numbers. See this. And there is a lot of information that data companies compile on us based on how much information we reveal about ourselves online or through the use of Apps on our phones. So basically, it could be possible to find out about the locations you frequent (home, work, where you shop), as well as your family members, social contacts and loved ones, and all the rest of the information that you reveal about yourself on social media.

If you do not want these immigration agencies to store all this information on you, think about ways to limit how much private information you disclose. For example, scale down your social media use and think about only posting pictures or comments that you want stored forever. Take Apps off of your phone that are constantly storing your location. Use online browsers that do not track you and your online searches. Use texting and calling Apps that don’t store and share your contacts or your messages. You can also use encrypted email to communicate online. You can also turn off the location services on your cell phone and only use apps that you really need so that your phone and third party entities stores less information on you. These are just some ideas, but it is worth taking the time to learn about how to protect your privacy. Here are some suggestions.  

If you are not applying for a visa or entering the U.S., how are U.S. immigration authorities going to know about you in the first place? If you came to the U.S. on a visa, then your information is known to immigration authorities. If you were deported in the past, then DHS agencies will also have your information even if you did not come on a visa. Also, if you ever filed any immigration applications here in the U.S., then immigration authorities will know about you. The only category of people that U.S. immigration authorities cannot identify are people that crossed the border without permission and have never applied for any immigration status here and have never been arrested by the police. So immigration agencies do not have an A file yet for such people. But even so, everyone should know how to protect their privacy and avoid feeding personal information into the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Encourage your family members and friends to protect their and your online privacy as well.

Also remember that you need to speak to an immigration lawyer before you submit applications or petitions to immigration agencies. It will be easier for these agencies now to know more specific information about where you live, who your family members are and where you are working, etc. so make sure that you speak with an immigration lawyer about any risk that you may encounter in getting an application denied or exposing yourself to an immigration arrest.

Check out this online newsletter about immigration and surveillance! 





Elise McCaffrey