People For the American Way

Letter: ICE Proposes Ineffective and Discriminatory Digital Muslim Ban

People For in Action
Letter: ICE Proposes Ineffective and Discriminatory Digital Muslim Ban

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims that its new vetting program will “evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society” and “assess whether an applicant intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts.” In reality, the ICE Extreme Vetting Initiative is a thinly disguised digital Muslim ban in which ICE will spy on social media accounts to automatically flag people for deportation or visa denial. As People For the American Way, the Brennan Center for Justice, and more than 50 other organizations made clear in a November 16 letter, allowing ICE to hide politicized, discriminatory decisions behind a veneer of objectivity will come at great cost to freedom of speech, civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights. You can download our letter, with footnotes, here.

Dear Secretary Duke:

We are a coalition of 56 civil rights, civil liberties, government accountability, human rights, immigrant rights, and privacy organizations. We write to express our opposition to Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s proposed new Extreme Vetting Initiative, which aims to use automated decision-making, machine learning, and social media monitoring to assist in vetting of visa applicants and to generate leads for deportation. As it is described in ICE documents,1 this program would be ineffective and discriminatory. It would also pose a signal threat to freedom of speech and assembly, civil liberties, and civil and human rights. We urge the Department of Homeland Security to abandon this effort.

In July 2017, the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) held an Industry Day to seek input from the private sector about an “overarching vetting contract that automates, centralizes and streamlines the current manual vetting process effort.” The goal of the Extreme Vetting Initiative is to “develop processes that determine and evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society as well as their ability to contribute to national interests,”2 using analytic capabilities including machine learning.3 ICE also seeks to “develop a mechanism/methodology that allows [the agency] to assess whether an applicant intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States.”4 ICE erroneously believes that because predictive analytics have, at times, been shown to be of value in the private sector, they will offer similar value for national security.5

In reality, as a group of prominent technologists advised in a recent letter, “no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments of the traits that ICE seeks to measure.”6 There is no definition anywhere in American law of what it means to be a “positively contributing member of society” or to “contribute to national interests,” posing a risk that ICE will exercise maximal latitude to discriminate beneath the cover of an unproven algorithm. Experts have also concluded that national security threats—in particular, acts of terrorism—are so rare that they are extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to predict, because the data are so scant that they do not provide a reliable basis for prediction.7

Instead, it is likely that any developer tasked with building this system will rely on proxies—for example, using an individual’s income to measure his or her contribution to society, or analyzing social media posts for “tone” considered threatening to the United States.8 Indeed, ICE documents place a heavy emphasis on social media monitoring,9 ignoring the fact—recently verified by a DHS Inspector General report—that DHS has failed to put into place adequate mechanisms to measure the value of its monitoring programs.10

What’s more, the criteria that ICE intends to use social media analysis to predict are outside the realm of existing technology. The meaning of content posted on social media is highly context-dependent. Errors in human judgment about the real meaning of social media posts are common.11 Algorithms designed to judge the meaning of text struggle to make even simple determinations, such as whether a social media post is positive, negative, or neutral.12 Moreover, most tools cannot reliably analyze text in languages other than English.13 Confirming that ICE’s focus is on quantity rather than quality, the agency has announced that the winning vendor for the Extreme Vetting Initiative contract must “generate a minimum of 10,000 investigative leads annually”—without regard to how many leads are actually appropriate.14

This initiative is tailor-made for discrimination. The proposed program’s aims—to evaluate whether an individual will become “a positively contributing member of society” or whether he or she “intends to commit criminal or terrorist attacks”—are lifted directly from the president’s “travel ban” executive orders,15 multiple versions of which federal courts enjoined as discriminatory.16 Indeed, President Trump has expressly said that his proposed ban on Muslim immigration had “morphed into extreme vetting for certain areas of the world”—the very name of this initiative.17

The Extreme Vetting Initiative will also undoubtedly chill free expression, contravening the First Amendment and international human rights, such as those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which the United States has registered official support, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a party. ICE will require the chosen contractor to “analyze and apply techniques to exploit publically available information” from a breathtakingly wide range of online sources, including “media, blogs, public hearings, conferences, academic websites, social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, radio, television, press, geospatial sources, internet sites, and specialized publications.”18 The knowledge that the government will be regularly scouring online statements to make admission or deportation determinations will unquestionably pressure both visa applicants and recipients—and the people with whom they communicate—to censor themselves online. With applicants’ online private lives open to government scrutiny, and without the ability to provide context to, or explanation for, online content or connections, visa applicants and holders are likely to self-censor or delete accounts with consequences for personal, business and travel-related activity. These risks are particularly acute in light of existing initiatives to ask travelers to identify all of their social media handles in order to obtain permission to travel to the United States.

It seems highly likely that this surveillance will extend to permanent residents, as well as temporary visa holders. The program’s Statement of Objectives says that the failure to continuously vet permanent residents creates “significant risk in ICE’s ability to identify emerging risks, such as radicalization, that may occur after an individual arrives in the United States.”19 When one contractor expressly asked ICE whether it wanted to continuously vet permanent residents, the agency said that it would answer the question at a later date.20

Through the Extreme Vetting Initiative, ICE seeks to automate the process by which the U.S. government targets, finds, and forcibly removes people from our country, likely including permanent residents. But this system will not work the way ICE says it will work. Instead, it risks hiding politicized, discriminatory decisions behind a veneer of objectivity—at great cost to freedom of speech, civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights. It will hurt real, decent people and tear apart families. We urge you to immediately and publicly halt work on this program.


18 Million Rising
Access Now
Advocacy for Principled Action in Government
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
Amnesty International
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Democracy & Technology
Center for Media Justice
The Center for Security, Race, and Rights, Rutgers Law School
Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law
Color of Change
Committee to Protect Journalists
The Constitution Project
Council on American-Islamic Relations
The Concerned Archivists Alliance
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)
Free Press
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Data Analysis Group
Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota
Justice Strategies
The Identity Project
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Liberty Coalition
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Legal Aid Justice Center
Muslim Advocates
Muslim Justice League
Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
NAFSA: Association of International Educators
National Hispanic Media Coalition
National Immigration Law Center
National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild
National Iranian American Council (NIAC)
New America’s Open Technology Institute
Online Policy Group
Open MIC (Open Media and Information Companies Initiative)
PEN America
People for the American Way
Restore the Fourth
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Southern Poverty Law Center
Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network (SIREN)
Union for Reform Judaism
Woodhull Freedom Foundation


Anti-Muslim, Defending Religious Liberty, Extreme Vetting Initiative, ICE, Immigration, travel