In­creased vet­ting for U.S. visas will cause de­lays, im­mi­gra­tion lawyers say

So­cial me­dia re­views manda­tory for some ap­pli­cants, di­rec­tive says

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY CAROL MORELLO AND ERIN CUNNINGHAM carol.morello@wash­post.com erin.cunningham@wash­post.com Cunningham re­ported from Is­tan­bul.

Height­ened se­cu­rity pro­ce­dures for vet­ting some visa ap­pli­cants at U.S. em­bassies world­wide will prob­a­bly cause long de­lays for would-be trav­el­ers as the gov­ern­ment scru­ti­nizes ev­ery­thing from work his­tory to so­cial me­dia post­ings, im­mi­gra­tion lawyers and ad­vo­cates said Fri­day.

Un­der new di­rec­tives in a cable signed by Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son re­cently, any­one who has set foot in ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the Is­lamic State must un­dergo a manda­tory so­cial me­dia re­view.

That could af­fect many visa ap­pli­cants from Iraq, even though the coun­try was re­moved this month from a list of ma­jor­i­tyMus­lim coun­tries un­der a travel ban from a Jan. 27 ex­ec­u­tive or­der signed by Pres­i­dent Trump, later re­vised. Un­til now, so­cial me­dia re­views had been done at the dis­cre­tion of con­sular of­fi­cials who ap­prove or deny visas.

Ad­di­tional screen­ing mea­sures are com­ing, as Tiller­son or­dered con­sulates to de­velop cri­te­ria for iden­ti­fy­ing “ap­pli­cant pop­u­la­tions war­rant­ing in­creased scru­tiny.” The cable sug­gests that when con­sid­er­ing ap­pli­cants who fit the pro­file, con­sular of­fi­cers should ask for fur­ther se­cu­rity guid­ance.

Although the stan­dards out­lined in a March 17 cable by Tiller­son are still be­ing re­fined, and oth­ers re­it­er­ate ex­ist­ing pro­ce­dures, they of­fer a glimpse of how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to im­pose “ex­treme vet­ting” even though courts in Hawaii and Mary­land have is­sued in­junc­tions against por­tions of the re­vised travel ban.

“This strikes me as an end run around the ju­di­cial in­junc­tions,” said Stephen Le­gom­sky, who was chief coun­sel of U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “The in­junc­tions pre­vent the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a travel ban by ex­ec­u­tive or­der. But noth­ing in them specif­i­cally pro­hibits new rules on visa de­nials over­seas.”

The Tiller­son cable, first re­ported by Reuters, in­structs con­sular of­fi­cials to ex­plore all avail­able leads in in­ves­ti­gat­ing an ap­pli­cant’s back­ground.

“Con­sular of­fi­cers should not hes­i­tate to refuse any case pre­sent­ing se­cu­rity con­cerns,” he wrote, adding, “All of­fi­cers should re­mem­ber that all visa de­ci­sions are na­tional se­cu­rity de­ci­sions.”

It is un­clear, how­ever, how much time con­sular of­fi­cials will be ex­pected to ded­i­cate to in-per­son in­ter­views with ap­pli­cants. It ad­vises each of­fi­cial to sched­ule no more than 120 visa in­ter­views a day, the equiv­a­lent of four min­utes per in­ter­view, or about the same as be­fore.

Im­mi­gra­tion ad­vo­cates say that even though Tiller­son re­it­er­ated the long-stand­ing ex­pec­ta­tion that na­tional se­cu­rity is para­mount when con­sular of­fi­cers de­cide whether to grant visas, it is likely to lead to more de­nials, even among ap­pli­cants with le­git­i­mate rea­sons to visit the United States. The de­ci­sions of con­sular of­fi­cials are con­sid­ered fi­nal and vir­tu­ally never sub­ject to ap­peal.

“If you’re a con­sular of­fi­cer, given how much at­ten­tion is be­ing paid to na­tional se­cu­rity, if it’s at all close, you’d rather be the of­fi­cer who de­nies a visa know­ing there’s never a chance at re­view than the per­son who is­sues a visa to some­one who com­mits a ter­ri­ble act,” Le­gom­sky said. “It’s a strong in­cen­tive to deny a visa with­out a shred of con­cern for what that per­son might be.”

Though no coun­tries be­sides Iraq are men­tioned in Tiller­son’s cable, the new rules do not ap­ply to visa waiver coun­tries — pri­mar­ily most of the na­tions in Europe, plus Aus­tralia, New Zealand, Ja­pan, South Korea, Sin­ga­pore and Tai­wan.

The memo con­tains no specifics about what cri­te­ria might be used, so it is not known whether na­tion­al­ity or be­hav­ior will be fac­tors.

Im­mi­gra­tion ad­vo­cates say that the beefed-up vet­ting is bound to add to al­ready-lengthy back­logs of ap­pli­cants.

“This is go­ing to slow down the process for re­view­ing and grant­ing visas, and cre­ate se­vere de­lays for busi­nesses try­ing to have con­fer­ences or for their em­ploy­ees’ travel to the United States, as well as fam­i­lies wait­ing on visas,” said Greg Chen, ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor for the Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion. “If there’s a le­git­i­mate na­tional se­cu­rity con­cern about an in­di­vid­ual, ob­vi­ously ad­di­tional screen­ing is re­quired. But it ap­pears there’s go­ing to be a broader use of in­ter­view re­quire­ments and screen­ing re­quire­ments placed on a wider set of in­di­vid­u­als, with­out any clear, demon­stra­ble na­tional se­cu­rity ben­e­fits.”

In most U.S. em­bassies around the world, visas are pro­cessed within a few days of an in­ter­view, even at mis­sions in cities such as Bagh­dad and Beirut.

“That’s go­ing to change,” said Greg Siskind, an im­mi­gra­tion lawyer in Mem­phis who wor­ries that many physi­cians, uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors and re­searchers will face de­lays or de­nials be­cause of the places they come from.

“If you’re from cer­tain coun­tries, or re­li­gions, your odds are go­ing up that a lot of peo­ple are not go­ing to get visas in the three days that is typ­i­cal, or even 20 days,” said Siskind.

Man­dat­ing so­cial me­dia re­views for peo­ple who have been in ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the Is­lamic State — pri­mar­ily parts of Syria and a siz­able swath of Iraq — will be time-con­sum­ing and re­quire pro­fi­cient trans­la­tors. It also, the­o­ret­i­cally, could be the source of in­tel­li­gence beyond the ob­vi­ous search for rad­i­cal web­sites con­nected to Is­lamist ex­trem­ist groups.

Siskind thinks in­ves­ti­ga­tors could try to build data­bases of con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple based on their Face­book friends and Twit­ter fol­low­ers.

“Maybe that’s how you flag peo­ple, who are a sec­ond- or third-de­gree con­nec­tion away from some­one on the watch list,” he said. “It’s not nec­es­sar­ily what you’ve said on so­cial me­dia. It’s who you’re con­nected to.”

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