SAN FRANCISCO — Civil rights organizations are sounding the alarm over a proposal by Trump’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that would require visa holders from China to turn over their social media “handles.”
Over 30 civil rights groups signed onto a letter opposing the plan, saying it would increase racial profiling, erode internet freedom and privacy, and would not be effective at advancing security.
“There is no rational or substantiated argument for this proposal,” said Vincent Pan, director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. “The only thing we can speculate is that it is part of a larger policy against people of color and immigrants.”
Pan, who spoke at a press conference in San Francisco, called on communities to submit public comments opposing the policy this week. The period to submit public comments closes on Monday, April 24.
Under the plan, Chinese visa holders would be asked to submit social media identifiers via an electronic system that they currently use to advise authorities of upcoming travel.
In a notice for the proposal, CBP said travel plans for those who decline to provide the information would not “be subject to negative interpretation or interference.”
There has been discussion of even more intrusive efforts by the Trump administration, including things like requiring visitors to hand over social media passwords.
Last year, the Obama administration instituted a program for travelers from countries with a visa waiver program.
This proposal would target Chinese nationals specifically.
Most Chinese nationals use sites like Weibo and WeChat because U.S. platforms like Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China.
“As a Muslim American whose family is from Yemen, this hits close to home for me,” said community advocate Jehan Hakim of Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, who noted that visitors from Yemen were asked to share this information too. The result, she explained, has been a “chilling effect,” sending the “message that you are not welcome here and your rights are not protected.”
Importantly, the proposal has no protections for individuals.
“This policy doesn’t outline how this information will be used by the government,” said Joyce Xi, program coordinator of Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. There are no protections to prevent the information from being misinterpreted and used to bar Chinese nationals from the United States, for example, and no opportunity for individuals to review and challenge information that is used against them.
Xi pointed to the case of two British nationals who were deported after a joke they made on Twitter was misinterpreted. The British travelers were arrested after tweeting that they would “destroy America,” a British expression meaning to get drunk and party.
“On the surface, this is a policy directed at citizens from China seeking to travel to the U.S. on a visa,” said Adam Schwartz, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But the ripple effect of such a policy has broader implications. Privacy advocates say China could require the same kind of information from U.S. visitors in a tit-for-tat move.
Schwartz also noted that by investigating Chinese nationals’ social media, CBP could investigate anyone associated with them on social media, which would likely include many Chinese Americans.
“Historically, Chinese Americans have always been viewed as a foreigner,” said Yvonne Lee, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “When Chinese Americans started to gain visibility or perceived power, then the exclusion comes.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law to restrict immigration based on race.
“The Chinese Exclusion Act was a result of xenophobia, fear, rising nationalism and political opportunity,” said Lee. “The same sentiments are here today.”
But Lee said there is an important difference between today and 135 years ago.
“Unlike the first Exclusion Act, where Chinese Americans did not have rights and civil liberties protected, today, our community has a voice,” she said, “and the responsibility to stand up against xenophobia, hate and fear.”
The proposed policy is not yet final, and it is open to public comment until April 24.