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VisasState Department tightens visa screening

Published 24 March 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has instructed U.S. diplomatic missions to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and tighten screening for visa applicants in those groups, diplomatic cables obtained by Reuters show. Tillerson has also ordered a “mandatory social media check” for all applicants who have ever been present in territory controlled by Islamic State, in what two former U.S. officials said would be a broad, labor-intensive expansion of such screening.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has instructed U.S. diplomatic missions to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and tighten screening for visa applicants in those groups, diplomatic cables obtained by Reuters show.

Tillerson has also ordered a “mandatory social media check” for all applicants who have ever been present in territory controlled by Islamic State, in what two former U.S. officials said would be a broad, labor-intensive expansion of such screening. One former official said that social media screening is now done fairly rarely by consular officials.

PBS Newshour says that four cables, or memos, issued by Tillerson over the past two weeks offers insight into how the different agencies of the U.S. government are implementing what Donald Trump has called “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States.

The memos, which Reuters is reporting for the first time, provide instructions for implementing Trump’s 6 March revised executive order which temporarily barred visitors from six Muslim-majority countries and all refugees, and for implementing enhanced visa screening.

Some of the original cables sent under Tillerson’s signature to U.S. missions abroad were retracted in response to U.S. court blocking central elements of Trump’s executive order.

The final cable seen by Reuters, dated 17 March, reiterates an instruction to consular chiefs in each diplomatic mission to put together working groups of law enforcement and intelligence officials to “develop a list of criteria identifying sets of post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny.”

The 17 March cable says that applicants belonging to one of these identified population groups should be considered for higher-level security screening.

State Department sources told PBS Newshour that these population groups would likely vary from country to country.

Immigration advocates said the instructions could create a situation in which visa applicants are profiled on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, or religion rather than because they pose an actual threat to the United States.

“Most posts already have populations that they look at for fraud and security issues,” said Jay Gairson, a Seattle-based immigration attorney who has many clients from countries that would be affected by the travel ban.

“What this language effectively does is give the consular posts permission to step away from the focused factors they have spent years developing and revising, and instead broaden the search to large groups based on gross factors such as nationality and religion.”

Virginia Elliott, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s bureau of consular affairs, said the department was working to implement Trump’s presidential memorandum “in accordance with its terms, in an orderly fashion, and in compliance with any relevant court orders, so as to increase the safety and security of the American people.”

Reuters notes that it could not determine to what extent the cables were a departure from guidance given to consular officers under previous administrations, but some consular officials suggested some of the 17 March guidance differed little from current practice, since vetting of visa applicants is already rigorous.