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Consular Posts To Begin Heightened Screening and Extreme Vetting of Visa Applicants

| Mar 28, 2017 | Visa Issues

Due to the controversy surrounding President Trump’s “2.0 Muslim Ban,” the press devoted very little attention to a Presidential Memorandum signed the same day (March 6) ordering the Department of State and Department of Homeland Security to develop and implement protocols and procedures to “enhance the screening and vetting of applications for visas and all other immigration benefits.” From March 15 through March 17, 2017, Secretary of State issued a series of important cables to consular posts around the world in accordance with the memorandum, directing consulates to immediately implement measures to ensure that all visa applicants are properly vetted. Two of the most important cables can be viewed here and here.

While the revised ban has been temporarily blocked due to two restraining orders issued by District Courts in Hawaii and Maryland, the injunctions do not block the rigorous screening called for in the cables (although the latest cable does suspend certain measures that were originally scheduled to go into effect with the passage of the revised executive order). The language in the cables is perhaps purposely broad, intended to encompass a variety of methods purportedly aimed at focusing on threats to our national security. Consulates are reminded that visa decisions are “national security decisions” and officers are encouraged not to hesitate to refuse cases where there are security concerns or other issues of inadmissibility. Each consular post chief is instructed to work alongside law enforcement and intelligence partners to develop “a list of criteria identifying sets of post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny,” which presumably may vary from one consulate to another depending on regional and intelligence information available to the embassy. Once these discrete groups of high risk populations have been identified, consular officers will thereafter have the discretion to seek a Donkey Security Advisory Opinion, or “SAO.” During the interview process, officers are instructed to closely examine answers on the application forms, and when necessary, ask additional questions and/or pursue new lines of inquiry to determine whether the applicant warrants further security clearance.

Proposed Additional Questions

An earlier cable specifically listed additional lines of inquiry for applicants falling within these high risk categories for which an SAO is being requested, as well as for applicants from the six countries designated in the revised executive order. Pursuant to the temporary restraining order, as well as Secretary of State Tillerson’s latest cable, officers are directed not to ask the specific questions (at least not until the Department of State receives approval from the Office of Management and Budget, which as of this writing, has not been granted.) In any case, the proposed list of questions provides a fascinating look at how deep and exploratory the government is delving into an applicant’s personal biographic, family, as well as social history. Those questions include:

•· The applicant’s travel history over the last 15 years

•· The names of any siblings/children/former spouses not recorded in the DS-160/260 or NIV/IVO case notes

•· The applicant’s addresses during the last 15 years, if different from the applicant’s current address

•· Applicant’s prior passport numbers

•· Applicant’s prior occupations(s) and employers (plus a brief description if applicable) looking back 15 years

•· All phone numbers used by the applicant in the last five years

•· All email addresses and social media handles used by the applicant in the last five years

Social Media Check

In a previous post, we discussed how USCIS officers could potentially examine an applicant’s social media to determine the veracity of some information. In the Department of State Cables, posts are instructed to refer any applicant who may have ties to ISIS or other terrorist organizations or has even been present in an ISIS controlled territory, to a Fraud Prevention Unit for mandatory social media review. Exactly what will be looked at, and what criteria the media will be examined against is not specified.

Practical Ramifications

In practical terms, all of these new measures portend even longer processing times for visa applicants and potentially a flood of visa refusals. Even though officers are prohibited from asking the specific questions previously listed (until they receive further instruction), all applicants should nevertheless expect increased scrutiny into their background, whether that means previous travel history, previous places of residence, as well as associations with other people. Since each officer typically conducts up 120 visa interviews per day, applicants should not expect that they will be given ample time to explain anything that may appear questionable. Even under the current system, which arguably is very robust in terms of screening, cases delayed for “administrative processing” were rife. Under this new mandate, well-intentioned but nevertheless doctrinaire security protocols threaten to render an already sclerotic system moribund.

The above is general information only and not to be relied upon as legal advice. It does not create an attorney client relationship nor should it be relied upon as advice in lieu of consultation with an attorney.

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