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."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump is expected to issue a new executive order next week on refugees and other people coming to the U.S. from foreign countries. While we don't yet know the details of what the Trump administration's extreme vetting will involve, one element that keeps coming up is social media. Here's what Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told NPR's Rachel Martin on MORNING EDITION earlier this month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JOHN KELLY: 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. This is...
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: You would require that of anyone whose looking to immigrate to the U.S.
KELLY: Well, we're considering that, yeah - social media to see what they tweet.
SHAPIRO: In fact, the government has already been looking at social media from some people applying to come to the U.S. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is here to tell us more. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: When did this type of screening begin?
MYRE: So around the end of 2015, up until that point, very few Syrian refugees were coming to the U.S. And then over the last year or so, it was ramped up to about a thousand a month. And so this is when the vetting on social media began. Now, we spoke to Leon Rodriguez. Until last month, he was the head of Citizenship and Immigration Services. And here's what he had to say about the program.
LEON RODRIGUEZ: Initially we were focused on Syrian males who had some sort of flag in their application, and over time, we're expanding the universe of people whose social media we examine to include larger numbers of Syrian applicants as well as Iraq applicants. And what we would look at would be Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
MYRE: So these accounts are mostly all in Arabic, so it was very time-consuming. He said it could take up to eight hours to go through one account, and they didn't really have the staffing to do it. But they've been hiring and training and have become more efficient.
SHAPIRO: What were they looking for when they went through these accounts?
MYRE: So we ask, something like just extreme religiosity, somebody who's very, very pious. And he said absolutely not. That would not be a flag. And we ask, what about a video, a gruesome ISIS video of a beheading, for example. And he said, yes, that would absolutely raise a flag, and they might - he would expect an agent to put a hold on it, and it might even lead to a rejection of a refugee application.
SHAPIRO: Do we know whether the Trump administration in the first month has started doing anything differently?
MYRE: So Trump's executive order calls for a country-by-country review - not just the seven countries who we're familiar with but every country. So there could be all sorts of changes in the works or perhaps challenges and courts blocking them. And we heard John Kelly talk about possibly asking for passwords. And this is something they haven't been doing so far.
But I did speak with the Department of Homeland Security and asked them what have we seen that's different. The only new wrinkle so far seems to be - on an application form - is asking, what is your social media handle?
SHAPIRO: How effective is this form of screening?
MYRE: Don't really know yet. It's hard to say. Rodriguez said it's something they would like to - he would recommend that it be continued and even expanded until they can determine how effective it is. But so far, they just don't know. It's going to take a little more time.
SHAPIRO: If it becomes known over time that social media accounts are part of the screening, wouldn't people just go through and either delete things that might raise flags or create fake social media accounts?
MYRE: Absolutely. This is one of the things Rodriguez raised - is that if people know this is being looked at, it may have a chilling effect. They may not post. They may delete. They may create false accounts. And again, this big discussion we're having has all focused pretty much on refugees and some immigrants. We need to remember; this is a very small fraction of the overall number of people coming to the U.S. Refugees are quite literally 1 in a thousand. For every refugee who's coming to the United States, you have 999 other people who are not refugees.
SHAPIRO: Coming over on work visas or student visas or tourist visas, for example.
MYRE: Exactly, and so this would be an enormous lift, enormous manpower increase to be checking literally a thousand times as many people for their social media accounts. So it's probably going to have to be used in a very limited way even if they think it's pretty effective.
SHAPIRO: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks, Greg.
MYRE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.