The Trump administration continued to trudge towards an Orwellian dystopia Oct. 18 as the Department of Homeland Security began collecting data from the social media profiles of immigrants and naturalized citizens.

“There's something deeply troubling about government databases full of links to our private dating lives, civic engagement, and online diaries,” Indian American social activist Anirvan Chatterjee told India-West. “We wouldn't expect the U.S. government to ask for every photo or piece of writing, public or anonymous, any immigrant has produced.”

Chatterjee explained that the new DHS initiative could affect any immigrant or naturalized citizen using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, dating apps, and online health forums, amongst other social media. “This kind of demand is both repugnant, and serves no meaningful security purposes,” he said.

The new rule was implemented after a month-long comments period, during which 2,994 people — including several Indian Americans — stated their objection to the proposal. Concern was rampant that those in contact with immigrants or naturalized citizens would also be subjected to heightened scrutiny under DHS’s vague swath of implementation. Writers also voiced concerns about privacy issues and First Amendment rights which protect freedom of speech.

“This is morally wrong,” said Indian American Kalyanraman Bharathan, in a comment submitted to DHS. “When a government chooses to spy on its own people, the very principle of, by, and for the people is violated at its core. Worse, when government chooses to spy on a segment of its own people, it becomes an act of rank corruption, and a violation of an individual’s rights to free speech,” he said.

Ashia Ray commented: “1984 was a dystopian story, and legislation like this takes us one step closer.”

“DHS is over-reaching its duty and not making us safer for it,” stated Ray.

A new rule entered into the Federal Register Sept. 18 expands both the collection of the kinds of data that can be stored in a person’s “Alien file,” and also expands the existing rule to include naturalized citizens. Specifically, DHS is now allowed to collect the social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information and internet search results. It can also include in a person’s A-file publicly available information from the internet.

Information in an individual’s A-file is classified and there is no specific form for people wishing to obtain the information in their A-files. However, a form can be obtained from DHS’s chief privacy officer or a Freedom of Information Act request – detailing why the requestor needs the information – and can be filed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation voiced its opposition to the new policy before its implementation. “Individuals’ First Amendment rights to free speech and association — particularly for naturalized citizens and lawful permanent residents — are chilled by the government collecting information about them. This includes chronicling their beliefs and opinions; mapping their social networks; tracking their movements — and permanently storing this information in a government database, and using it against them when making decisions about their immigration status, or for a myriad of other purposes.”

“Immigrants today are just like their predecessors of centuries past, who come to America seeking freedom and a better life, and who aspire to fulfill the duties of citizenship. Our government should not single them out for invasive social media surveillance,” stated EFF.

The Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services — based in San Antonio, Texas — noted that the new rule violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as it mandates a differentiation between naturalized citizens and U.S.-born citizens. “The plain language of the 14th Amendment demonstrates that no citizen shall be denied equal protection of the laws,” noted RAICES in a letter to Jonathan Cantor, acting chief privacy officer at DHS.  

“However, including naturalized citizens in the System of Records effectively creates an arbitrary distinction between those who are citizens through other means and those who are citizens through naturalization, infringing upon the very rights protected by the 14th Amendment by creating two separate levels of citizenship where naturalized citizens are subsequently subjected to increased scrutiny and surveillance for no valid purpose,” stated RAICES in the letter to Cantor.

In another letter to Cantor, Juvaria Khan, staff attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization Muslim Advocates, wrote that the new policy could invoke prejudice towards Muslim Americans. “DHS’s notice is simply another extension of this administration’s targeting of immigrants — particularly those who are Muslim — through broadly-defined policies that are ripe for discriminatory implementation.

The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild also submitted a lengthy online comment to DHS, noting that information obtained on social media could be used to arrest or detain immigrants and naturalized citizens, and also to deny them federal benefits.

“DHS will engage in fishing expeditions to collect as much social media information as possible and store it, indefinitely,” noted the organization, adding that the policy would “chill freedom of expression because it fosters widespread surveillance.”

There were no comments submitted in favor of the new rule.

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