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President Obama proposed steps for millions of unauthorized people living in the U.S. to avoid deportation and obtain a work permit, but only if they show they have already been here since January 1, 2010. But how are they supposed to do so?
Many of the would-be applicants for the immigration plan, almost by definition, don’t have the sort of paperwork — pay stubs, drivers’ licenses, and so on — that people normally use to show proof of residency. This has led to reports suggesting that social media, especially Facebook, will help them show they were indeed in the U.S. for the requisite five year period.
Quartz points out that websites that let users “check in” or post their location will provide critical digital footprints for many immigration applicants. These tools will be especially helpful to younger people who don’t have a folder of utility bills, but who do have a steady record of photos and sign-ons on Foursquare, Twitter or Facebook.
This theory makes sense since government officials, not to mention the rest of us, are happy to use social media as proof of what other people have been doing. Facebook is today a staple of criminal and divorce proceedings, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of immigration files as well.
For now, however, a federal government’s website makes no mention of online evidence in its list of documents that can help people establish “continuous residency.” Here’s a screenshot:
The absence of Facebook or Twitter on the list is not necessarily significant, though. According to Douglas Lightman, an immigration attorney in New York, the documents above are only examples, and applicants can submit much more.
“We take a ‘kitchen sink’ approach in proving physical presence. With that in mind, it might make sense, given the details of what the individual can provide, to include print-outs from their Facebook account or other social media outlets, to corroborate that the individual was physically present in the United States,” said Lightman by email, adding “it wouldn’t hurt and could only help.”
Social media evidence is also likely to be part of the new reform process, which is still in the early stages, because that process is intended to build on reform measures from 2012 that applied to young people who had been in the country for years. The applicants under that process have reportedly already been submitting Facebook and other online data to make their case.
Keep in mind that the overall Obama proposal is still fraught with uncertainty (see Vox’s explainer of how it all works). But regardless of how it all plays out, social media records are set to be a fixture of the modern-day Ellis Island process.
Correction: an earlier version of this article described the Obama proposal as a “path to citizenship.”