Immigrants: Your social media can and will be used against you

Part 1

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An Instagram post like this could become part of an official immigration file and be probable cause for deportation proceedings.
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This is a two-part column. This week, a story about a recent increase in marijuana-related deportations and how immigrants in Colorado are unduly affected by the ongoing federal prohibition of marijuana. Next week, a look at the U.S. government’s systematic history of using the war on drugs to perpetuate the oppression of people of color and of immigrant communities.

It all started on Sept. 18, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a policy update in the Federal Register saying that “social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results” would be included as a part of people’s immigration files. The policy change, implemented on Oct. 18, doesn’t just affect immigrants coming into the country, but naturalized citizens and people with green cards.

DHS announced the redefinition of what constitutes the official record of an individual’s immigration history, “in an effort of transparency.” It’s the latest development in the department’s broadening use of technology to screen immigrants and find evidence of criminal activity.

The constitutionality and legality of the move is in question and is currently being challenged by privacy and immigrants’ rights attorneys across the country who doubt social media provides reasonable grounds for evidence in deportation cases.

But here in Colorado, the legal lines of the policy are especially gray and complex, given the federal prohibition of marijuana and the state-wide, constitutionally protected right to possess.

Since the implementation of the rule, Eddie Soto of the Latino advocacy nonprofit Servicios de la Raza says he is aware of 12 deportation actions stemming from social media that suggested marijuana use, possession or distribution by immigrants. In some cases he says the pictures indicate only peripheral involvement with marijuana, offering evidence as loose as a selfie taken outside a dispensary, which may be strong enough to be used for “probable cause” to challenge one’s immigration status.

Soto likens immigration status to a case being tried in a courtroom, in which only certain types of evidence are admissible by law. Suddenly, what was once considered private and inadmissible information is now part of the official court record.

“It’s like now your social media can and will be used against you,” Soto says.

Soto is intentionally vague in offering up names and details, indicating a sensitivity to the heightened risks of immigrants. He fears shedding light on specific situations would only further damage their immigration statuses.

“In my experience, as soon as you go public or file charges, immigration will find a reason to deny you your visa or your status,” he says. “And now, with the social media surveillance, it feels totally like ‘big brother’ trying to deport a whole bunch of people. I’ve got a feeling that what they will do is look at the social media of specific groups of immigrants first, like the DACA kids who are protesting [for their right to stay in this country], so they can deport them first. I worry this will be used to quell anybody who is vocal, to keep immigrants silent and invisible.” 

Soto says the best thing advocates can do for immigrants, specifically those living in states that have legalized marijuana, is to inform them of the change in rules and how to best prevent social media surveillance from being used against them. Servicios de la Raza has partnered with the Marijuana Industry Group (MIG), a trade association for licensed cannabis businesses, in hopes that they could help.

Kristi Kelly, executive director of MIG, says her organization had been actively looking for strategic partnerships to work on the social justice aspects of marijuana reform.

“This is a very real, very human issue — lives are being torn apart, families are bing separated,” Kelly says. “Candidly, this is an issue for us that we feel we have a responsibility to try to get the word out. As an educational and policy resource for our industry, MIG sees this as an issue not just of our community, but of our industry.”

Together, the organizations came up with a video and informational campaign that advises immigrants to adhere to a policy of abstinence, even avoiding contact with those using marijuana because friends’ social media posts can be included in immigration files, too. The campaign ultimately takes a “better safe than sorry” approach.

It was in the process of working with Servicios de La Raza that MIG became aware of three cases involving employees of dispensaries who were found to be in violation of federal law.

Kelly tells a story about a MIG member’s employee from another country. Though married to a U.S. citizen, the employee was still within the two-year review period with Immigration and Naturalization Services, so her employment was found to be in violation of her immigration status, and she was subsequently deported.

“It’s hard to convey the impact of these deportations,” Kelly says, “because the people are gone. It’s a community left dealing with the loss of someone. It’s inconceivable to me that the federal government was deporting people for something legal in the state in which they reside. But, broadly speaking, drug crimes have always been a common vehicle through which people lose their right to residency in the U.S.”

More on the connection between immigration and the war on drugs next week.