U.S. Secretary of State Issues Directives for Stricter Visa Screening

In a series of diplomatic cables, or memos, that were recently released, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed U.S. Consulates worldwide to immediately identify “[visa] applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny” and to tighten visa screening for members of those populations. Secretary Tillerson has also ordered that all visa applicants who may have ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or other terrorist organizations, or who have ever been present in ISIS-controlled territory, must have their social media handles reviewed.

These diplomatic cables from Secretary Tillerson were issued within weeks of President Trump’s March 6th memorandum and revised Executive Order directing the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to work with the Attorney General to implement protocols and procedures that will enhance the screening and “extreme vetting” of visa applicants in order to increase safety and security.

Secretary Tillerson’s diplomatic cables, in combination with President Trump’s March 6th memorandum revised Executive Order, emphasize the heightened screening that visa applicants from certain regions of the world can anticipate when applying for U.S. visas. They also foreshadow the likelihood for increased delays at U.S. Consulates overseas, as consular posts work to put into place these additional screening and vetting procedures..

Specifically, in the most recent diplomatic cable, issued on March 17th, and made public by Reuters, Secretary Tillerson instructed U.S. Consulates to convene law enforcement and intelligence community partners to “develop a list of criteria identifying sets of [Consular] post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny.”  Visa applicants who  are members of one of these identified population groups will receive higher-level security screening. Secretary Tillerson has also directed U.S. Consulates to limit the number of visa interview slots available each day, allocating additional time to each application. Secretary Tillerson acknowledged that this reduction in interviews “may cause interview appointment backlogs to rise.”

Initially, the guidance contained in the cables was much broader and included a mandatory set of questions that Consular Officers were required to ask members of the populations identified as security risks, as well as visa applicants from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the six Muslim-majority countries targeted by President Trump’s March 6th revised Executive Order. The proposed questions would have covered where visa applicants had lived, traveled, and worked over the past 15 years. Applicants from these countries would have also been required to provide all prior passport numbers, all phone numbers, email addresses, and social media handles used in the past five years. These specific questions have since been rescinded by Secretary Tillerson in light of recent U.S. court proceedings which have blocked the implementation of President Trump’s revised Executive Order.  

EIG will continue to provide updates as additional information on the impact of these executive actions becomes available.