State Dept. seeks tougher visa scrutiny,
including social media checks
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[May 05, 2017]
By Yeganeh Torbati and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S.
Department of State has proposed tougher questioning of visa applicants
believed to warrant extra scrutiny, according to a document published
Thursday, in a push toward the "extreme vetting" that President Donald
Trump has said is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.
Questions about social media accounts would be part of the stepped-up
criteria, which would apply to 65,000 people per year, or about 0.5
percent of U.S. visa applicants worldwide, the State Department
estimated. It did not target nationals of any particular countries.
A set of new questions would apply to visa applicants "who have been
determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism
or other national security-related visa ineligibilities," the State
Department said in a notice to the Federal Register.
Those applicants would be required to provide all prior passport
numbers, five years' worth of social media handles, email addresses and
phone numbers, as well as 15 years of biographical information, when
applying for a U.S. visa. Consular officers would not request user
passwords for social media accounts, the document said.
If granted, the new criteria would mark the first concrete step toward
more stringent vetting that Trump asked federal agencies to apply toward
travelers from countries he deemed a threat to the United States in an
executive order issued in January and revised in March.
While parts of the travel order, including a temporary ban on the entry
of nationals from several majority-Muslim countries, were halted by
federal courts, the review of vetting procedures detailed in an
accompanying memorandum remains in place.
"Collecting additional information from visa applicants whose
circumstances suggest a need for further scrutiny will strengthen our
process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity," a
State Department official said.
The State Department's proposal also says that applicants may be asked
to provide additional travel dates if a consular officer determines they
have been in an area which was "under the operational control of a
The proposed changes must undergo a public comment period before being
approved or denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by May
18. OMB did not respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Homeland Security, which was also tasked with
reviewing vetting procedures for visa applicants, said the State
Department request does not preclude DHS from identifying new "ways to
protect the American people."
"Some improvement will be classified, others will be public, but the
Department has only just begun ways to enhance the security of our
immigration system," DHS spokesman David Lapan said.
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SOCIAL MEDIA SNAGS
Immigration lawyers and advocates say the request for 15 years of
detailed biographical information, as well as the expectation that
applicants remember all their social media handles, is likely to
catch applicants who make innocent mistakes or do not remember all
the information requested.
They also question whether the time-consuming screening can achieve
its intended goal of identifying potential terrorists.
"The more effective tactics are the methods that we currently use to
monitor terrorist organizations, not just stumbling into the
terrorist who is dumb enough to post on his Facebook page 'I am
going to blow up something in the United States,'" said John
Sandweg, a former senior official at DHS who is now with the firm
Frontier Solutions, which provides investigatory, crisis management
and other services.
Applicants may not necessarily be denied a visa if they fail to
provide all the information if it is determined they can provide a
"credible explanation," the notice said.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson first introduced similar measures
in a March cable to American consular officers that outlined
questions officers should ask in order to tighten vetting of visa
But Tillerson had to withdraw that guidance just days later because
the OMB had not approved those specific questions.
The State Department estimated that the additional screening
measures would take approximately an hour per applicant, meaning an
additional 65,000 additional hours of work per year.
Tillerson's cables anticipated delays as a result of the rules
"Somebody's got to do the work," said Greg Siskind, an immigration
attorney in Memphis. "It's going to cause operations at a lot of
consulates slow to a crawl."
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in
New York; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Julia
Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Alistair Bell and Leslie
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