By Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers hammered federal immigration officials on Thursday for not closely reviewing social media posts in vetting visa applicants, while the officials said they are now doing this but finding the results so far to be inconclusive.
In another round of criticism for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the issue, a House of Representatives committee questioned Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, at a hearing.
He said the information gleaned from social media accounts so far has been ambiguous.
Immigration and keeping Americans safe from terror attacks have become major issues in the 2016 presidential campaign, especially since the Dec. 2 San Bernardino, California, shooting rampage, in which 14 people died, and the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that no one was routinely checking visa applicants' social media postings at the time when an application came in from Tashfeen Malik, one of the two shooters in the San Bernardino killings.
Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, never expressed support for "jihad and martyrdom" publicly on social media, but they discussed it via private communications, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said on Wednesday.
The social media accounts of thousands of applicants for U.S. immigration benefits, including visas, are now being screened under pilot programs, Rodriguez said.
Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah said the department had "made the really wrong call" by not using social media accounts to screen visa applications before.
Democratic Representative Steven Lynch of Massachusetts said the department should have better scrutinized the social media accounts of Malik when she applied for her visa.
“We should have said, ‘We want your social media, both your private stuff and your public stuff.’ That’s entirely reasonable to ask people who are coming from countries that are known to sponsor terror," said Lynch.
A $1.1 trillion government spending bill expected to pass Congress later this week would require citizens of countries that participate in a visa waiver program with the United States to submit to interviews if they have visited "high-risk" countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan since March 2011.
The DHS also drew criticism from lawmakers on Thursday for not releasing a report on how many foreigners in the United States have overstayed their visas.
Up to 500,000 of all U.S. visa holders overstay their visas each year, said DHS's chief diplomatic officer, Alan Bersin.
In the past fiscal year, the department has opened 118 investigations into Syrians who overstayed their U.S. visas, he said. Eleven of those investigations resulted in administrative arrests and 18 are continuing.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Jonathan Oatis)