The Department of Homeland Security backed off an attempt to force Twitter to reveal information about the @ALT_uscis account on Friday, after the company and the ACLU sued. While this was a small victory for free speech advocates, the very fact that the Trump administration was going after the individual(s) behind the Twitter account may indicate a broader effort to restrict immigration information that could help undocumented people or alter the debate on immigration in the United States.
“I don’t see this as trying to shut down access to all people to information, but [rather] an unwise attempt by the agency to chill speech in the federal employees,” said Lenni Benson, professor of law at New York Law School and founder and senior policy advisor of the Safe Passage Project, which provides legal services to undocumented children. “People have many avenues for learning immigration law information… [but] the Trump administration is trying to make the release of some information harder to get,” she told TheWrap.
The @ALT_uscis Twitter account is one of a host of anonymous “alt” accounts set up in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in January. Many of these accounts purport to be operated by rogue employees within government agencies, though given that the identities haven’t been confirmed, they should not be trusted prima facie. Their goal is often to distribute views and data that openly conflict with the Trump administration’s stance on a variety of issues from immigration to global warming.
“Dozens of such accounts have sprung up,” the Twitter and ACLU suit says, “and many of them are actively used to disseminate criticism of the Administration and its policies…. Like many Twitter users, those who speak through these ‘alternative agency’ accounts do so pseudonymously, often going to considerable lengths to avoid disclosing their real identities. The motivations these users have for preserving their anonymity presumably include a desire to speak freely and without the fear of negative consequences that may flow from being identified as the source of controversial views.” The suit also noted that those fears may be especially acute for current employees of government agencies as they would risk retaliation, harassment, “or even loss of livelihood” if their identities were revealed.
Virtually as soon as Trump took office, his team began scrubbing government websites of information that didn’t jibe with his platform — any mention of climate change on Whitehouse.gov, for instance — and took control of government social media accounts. Adjusting government communications strategy to fit a political platform is standard operating procedure for an incoming administration, but civil libertarians, journalists, scientists and economist are increasingly worried that the Trump administration is seeking to conceal or undermine public information. Benson also said there are signs the Trump administration “may be less responsive to Freedom of Information Act” requests.
“The speed with which the government buckled shows just how blatantly unconstitutional its demand was in the first place,” said ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari in a statement. “Speaking anonymously about issues of the day is a longstanding American tradition, dating back to when the framers of the Constitution wrote under pseudonyms. The anonymity that the First Amendment guarantees is often most essential when people criticize the government, and this free speech right is an important today as ever.”
Of course, given that it’s anonymous, the @ALT_uscis account cannot be substantiated as actually belonging to an employee of United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). However, the fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) sought to force Twitter to turn over records related to it indicates that that they see it — at a minimum — as a threat to their control over immigration information. The USCIS, like the CPB and ICE, is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). USCIS handles visa applications and immigration petitions, and it is the agency that undocumented immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers submit their applications for residency or citizenship to.
The targeting of the owners of the @ALT_uscis account comes just two months after the Trump administration announced the creation of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office within DHS, the purpose of which is to publicize crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, despite the fact that overall immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than American citizens. Former State Department counterterrorism coordinator and director of The John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College Daniel Benjamin wrote in March that the VOICE office “has more to do with propagating his view of foreigners as dangerous than it does with meeting a need. It is not clear what such an office does.”
Ultimately, the attempt to unmask the @ALT_uscis account, coupled with the creation of the VOICE office, may indicate a concerted, if clumsy, attempt by the Trump administration to control the flow information about immigration and manipulate public perception around the issue.
We are taking a break! The past few days have been extremely difficult and full of anxiety. Thank you again America!
— ALT???? Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 7, 2017
— ALT???? Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 7, 2017