Heinrich Calls On Department Of Homeland Security To Immediately Require Social Media Background Checks As Part Of Visa Screening Process

Letter Signed By 22 Senate Democrats Comes After Reports That Female San Bernardino Assailant May Have Expressed Support For Terrorism On Social Media Before Applying For Visa

WASHINGTON, D.C.(Dec. 15, 2015) - Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson urging the agency to immediately conduct social media background checks as a part of the screening process for U.S. visa determinations.

The letter, led by U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), also requested more information from DHS on the existing screening process, resource constraints, and plans to integrate reviews of social media accounts into the background screening process to ensure it's as rigorous and comprehensive as possible. The letter comes in the wake of reports that the female assailant involved in the San Bernardino terrorist attack may have expressed support for terrorism on social media platforms before her fiancé – the male attacker and a U.S. Citizen – applied for a K-1 fiancé visa on her behalf.

The letter to Secretary Johnson reads in part, “We believe these checks, focused on possible connections to terrorist activity, should be incorporated into DHS’s vetting process for visa determinations, and that this policy should be implemented as soon as possible….Ensuring that the screening processes for our nation’s visa programs are rigorous and comprehensive must be a top priority, as these programs are critical to our security, our economy, and for our bilateral relationships with nations around the world.”

In addition to Senators Heinrich and Shaheen, the letter was also signed by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Barbara Mukulski (D-Md.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Tom Carper (D-Del.).

The full text of the letter is below:

December 15, 2015

The Honorable Jeh Johnson Secretary

Department of Homeland Security

3801 Nebraska Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20016

Dear Secretary Johnson:

We write to express our deep concern regarding reports that critical background information of individuals participating in American visa programs has been largely omitted from the visa security screening process. 

According to recent reports, the female assailant involved in the San Bernardino terrorist attack may have expressed radical jihadist sentiments on social media platforms before her U.S. citizen fiancé, the male attacker, ‎applied for a K-1 fiancé visa on her behalf.  Media reports have also indicated that Department of Homeland Security officials are able to conduct social media background checks as a part of certain immigration programs, but are doing so inconsistently.  We believe these checks, focused on possible connections to terrorist activity, should be incorporated into DHS's vetting process for visa determinations, and that this policy should be implemented as soon as possible.

Therefore, we request that you provide the following information so that we may work with you to implement a more rigorous screening process:

  • Do you plan to integrate social media background checks into the screening process for all visas?
  • Do you face resource and/or technical barriers to ‎implementing these background checks? If so, please describe them.
  • Does the Administration conduct social media background checks in any of the existing screening processes for visa programs?  If so, please describe how they are conducted.

Ensuring that the screening processes for our nation's visa programs are rigorous and comprehensive must be a top priority, as these programs are critical to our security, our economy, and for our bilateral relationships with nations around the world.

We look forward to working with you to establish a more robust social media background check process for all visitors and immigrants to the United States.

Sincerely,