US embassies ordered to identify population groups for tougher visa screening

Violet Powell
April 5, 2017

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson had sent cables to all U.S. embassies, instructing officials to increase scrutiny in the country.

Four cables, or memos, issued by Tillerson over the last two weeks provide insight into how the USA government is implementing what President Donald Trump has called "extreme vetting" of foreigners entering the United States, a major campaign promise.

Embassy officials must now scrutinise 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, said the report. While the instructions did not define population sets, human rights groups criticized the policy as being potentially discriminatory.

The cable also tells USA overseas posts to review the social media accounts of visa applicants suspected of terrorist ties or who have ever been in Islamic State group-controlled areas.

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 from the Office of Management and Budget. The memos were part of Tillerson's plan to implement Trump's revised executive order on banning Muslims, which was frozen in federal court in Hawaii hours before it was supposed to go into effect on March 16. "Consular officers should not hesitate to refuse any case presenting security concerns", Tillerson wrote in the cable. The memos direct consular officials to identify "populations warranting increased scrutiny" and to put applicants from these populations through more rigorous questioning.

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 travellers and relatives of American residents.

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Even if the applicant otherwise qualifies for a visa, those identified as meeting the criteria would require additional scrutiny, leading to a possible visa denial. The diplomatic cables reportedly are calling on USA diplomatic missions to decide which populations of people will be subjected to the 'increased scrutiny.' The officials, meanwhile, revealed the mandatory social media check.

Anil Kalhan, a law professor who chairs the global human rights committee of the New York City Bar Association, added that the directives "will needlessly worsen visa processing backlogs" and may lead to unwarranted visa denials.

On Tuesday, State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that the meeting's dates didn't fit in Tillerson's schedule.

The information comes from Reuters which cites diplomatic cables it got access to, as well as unnamed former officials. Applicants are asked basic biographic questions, but also queried about their demeanor.

Mr. Tillerson's cable also restricts the number of interviews one visa officer can conduct every day.

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