Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trump Administration Orders Tougher Screening of Visa Applicants

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 American Residents.

Diplomatic cables sent last week from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to all American 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 longstanding allies like 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 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 10th and March 17th.

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.

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 those seeking to come to America, and will further slow down a bureaucratic Approval process that can already take months or even 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 for extra Scrutiny 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, the Director of Advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It will make it much harder and create substantial delays.”

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.

The President’s first attempt to put tougher screening in place was the Executive Order aimed at temporarily blocking Refugees and people whom Trump called “Bad Dudes” from predominantly Muslim Countries. Courts blocked the first version of the President’s Order after a chaotic rollout just days into his term. A second Order was blocked this month.

But on March 6th, the same day that Trump issued his revised Travel Ban, he also wrote a Presidential Memorandum ordering the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security to “implement protocols and procedures” to enhance Visa screening.

Administration officials said the Cables from Tillerson are among the actions being taken to carry out that Memorandum. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the steps aim “to more effectively identify individuals who could pose a threat to the United States.”

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.

The seven-page Unclassified Cable that Tillerson sent on March 15th makes clear that the process of securing an Entry Visa is about to get harder and longer at Diplomatic posts around the Globe. “Consular chiefs must immediately convene post’s law enforcement and intelligence community partners” to develop what Tillerson described in the Cable as “sets of post-applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny.” People targeted for increased scrutiny, Tillerson said in his Cable, may be subject to a decision made only after more rigorous Screening.

The March 15th Cable 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 by the applicant in the past five years.

Another Cable, sent two days later, indicated that Consular officers should not begin asking for the 15-year Travel and Work Histories until the State Department received Authorization for those questions from the Office of Management and Budget. It is unclear why that Permission had not been granted.

The State Department also urged its Embassy officials to Delay or Reschedule Interviews if an Applicant was unable to provide all of the information demanded. Tillerson acknowledged in the Cables that the extra scrutiny would cause “backlogs to rise,” even as he recommended that officials should interview no more than 120 Visa applicants each day.

Mr. Chen, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, questioned how a single Interviewer who conducts 120 Interviews per day, at about five minutes per Interview, could improve Security for the Visa process. “It’s highly unlikely they could obtain information that demonstrates whether someone is a national security threat in such a brief interview process,” he said.

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