State Department Outlines ‘Extreme Vetting’ Measures for Visa Applicants

By Roy Maurer May 10, 2017
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Editor's note: The Trump administration approved a new questionnaire (Form DS-5535, Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants) requiring applicants to provide biographical information going back 15 years and social media information for the past 5 years.

Selected visa applicants will soon be undergoing stricter questioning at U.S. embassies and consulates overseas under a proposal from the Trump administration.

The State Department is asking for an expedited emergency review from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to implement President Donald Trump's "extreme vetting" measures to enhance the security screening and vetting of applications for travel and work visas.

"Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a cable on March 15 with similar instructions to all consular posts but neglected to obtain OMB approval as required," said Julie Pearl, CEO and managing attorney of the Pearl Law Group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The State Department published a notice in the May 4 Federal Register with its suggested changes. After the comment and approval process, "It's likely that OMB will approve these changes by May 18," Pearl said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]

If approved, several new reporting measures would be required from a select group of up to 65,000 visa stamp applicants per year at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. (This figure represents less than 1 percent of the total number of annual applicants.)

New or expanded areas of inquiry would include a visa applicant's:

  • Passport numbers and country of issuance.
  • Siblings, children, and current and former spouses or domestic partners (names and dates of birth.)
  • Travel history for the past 15 years, including domestic travel in the country of nationality if the country was under control of terrorist organizations, and sources of funding for travel.
  • Address history for the past 15 years.
  • Employment history for the past 15 years.
  • Social media handles, phone numbers and e-mail addresses for the past five years.

Disclosing social media handles is currently voluntary. Consular officers will not ask for social media account passwords, according to the State Department.
The proposal states that visa applicants who have previously visited areas "under the operational control of a terrorist organization" at the time of their visit could be subject to more detailed questioning about that travel.

Data collection will not be used to discriminate or deny visas "based on applicants' race, religion, ethnicity, national original, political views, gender or sexual orientation," the State Department said.

"It's not clear which applicants will warrant additional scrutiny and what the significance is for limiting the vetting to up to 65,000 annual applicants," Pearl said.

"Although [the State Department] has estimated the number of applicants who will be affected by the proposed rule, no particular subsets of applicants are identified," said Amy Peck, an immigration attorney in the Omaha, Neb., office of Jackson Lewis. "Consular officers will have the discretion to decide, based upon the circumstances of a visa applicant, a review of the visa application, or responses in a visa interview [that] indicate a need for greater scrutiny."

Visas may still be granted even if all the requested information cannot be supplied, if the applicant has a "credible explanation" for the failure and there is enough other information to decide on eligibility, Peck said.

"We recommend that all applicants gather historical passport and biographical information for the last 15 years—or alternatively a credible explanation for why it is not available—in advance of their visa interviews, in case they are chosen for the heightened screening," Pearl said.

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