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Friday 24 March 2017

Trump Administration Orders Tougher Screening of Visa Applicants

Trump Administration Orders Tougher Screening of Visa Applicants

Rex Tillerson

* Diplomatic cables sent from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to all U.S. embassies instructed consular officials to broadly increase scrutiny.

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The Trump administration is making it tougher for millions of visitors to enter the United States by demanding new security checks before giving visas to tourists, business travelers and relatives of U.S. residents.

Diplomatic cables sent last week from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to all U.S. embassies instructed consular officials to broadly increase scrutiny. It was the first evidence of the “extreme vetting” Trump promised during the presidential campaign.

The new rules generally do not apply to 38 countries — including most of Europe and long-standing allies such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea — whose citizens can be speedily admitted into the United States under the visa-waiver program.

No countries from the Middle East or Africa are part of the program.
In 2016, the United States issued more than 10 million visas to foreign visitors.

Even stricter security checks for people from six predominantly Muslim nations remain on hold because federal courts have temporarily blocked President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

But Trump and his national-security team are not waiting to toughen the rules to decide who can enter the United States. Embassy officials must now scrutinize a broader pool of visa applicants to determine if they pose security risks to the United States, according to four cables sent between March 10 and March 17.

That extra scrutiny will include asking applicants detailed questions about their background and making mandatory checks of social-media history if a person has ever been in territory controlled by the Islamic State group.

Trump has spoken regularly of his concern about the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” from immigrants. But it is unclear who, exactly, will be targeted for the extra scrutiny since Tillerson’s cables leave that decision up to security officers at each embassy.

Still, taken together, consular officials and immigration advocates said, the administration’s moves will increase the likelihood of denial for some people seeking to come to the U.S. and will further slow an approval process that can already take months or years for those flagged for extra investigation.

There are legitimate reasons someone might be targeted, such as evidence of a connection to terrorism or crime. But advocates also said they worry about people being profiled because of their name or nationality.

“This will certainly slow down the screening process and impose a substantial burden on these applicants,” said Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The cables from Tillerson, which were reported by Reuters, make clear that the Trump administration wants a more intense focus on the potential for a serious threat when making decisions about who should receive a visa.

“Consular officers should not hesitate to refuse any case presenting security concerns,” Tillerson wrote in the cables, titled “Implementing Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Visa Applications.”

“All visa decisions are national-security decisions,” the secretary of state added.

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Most people seeking entry to the United States, for family, business or tourism reasons, must apply for a visa. Embassy officials can deny a visa for anyone suspected of being a threat, conducting fraud or planning to stay longer than allowed.

A cable Tillerson sent March 15 suggests areas of inquiry during a required interview, including: the applicant’s travel history, addresses and work history for 15 years; and all phone numbers, email addresses and social-media handles used in the past five years.

Another cable, sent two days later, indicated consular officers should not begin asking for the 15-year travel and work histories until the State Department received authorization from the Office of Management and Budget.

It is unclear why that permission had not been granted.

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