US embassies told to identify groups for tougher screening

This could lead to profiling of visa applicants based on nationality or religion, say lawyers

WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed US diplomatic missions to identify "populations warranting increased scrutiny" and toughen screening for visa applicants in those groups, according to diplomatic cables seen by Reuters.

He has also ordered a "mandatory social media check" for all applicants who have ever been present in territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in what two former US officials said would be a broad, labour-intensive expansion of such screening. Social media screening is now done fairly rarely by consular officials, one of the former officials said.

Four cables, or memos, issued by Mr Tillerson over the last two weeks provide insight into how the US government is implementing what President Donald Trump has called "extreme vetting" of foreigners entering the US, a major campaign promise. The cables also demonstrate the administrative and logistical hurdles the White House faces in executing its vision.

The memos, which have not been previously reported, provided instructions for implementing Mr Trump's March 6 revised executive order temporarily barring visitors from six Muslim-majority countries and all refugees, as well as a simultaneous memorandum mandating enhanced visa screening.

The flurry of cables to US missions abroad issued strict new guidelines for vetting US visa applicants, and then retracted some of them in response to US court rulings that challenged central tenets of Mr Trump's executive order.

RISK OF PROFILING

Most posts already have populations that they look at for fraud and security issues... 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.

SEATTLE-BASED IMMIGRATION ATTORNEY JAY GAIRSON, who has many clients from countries that would be affected by Mr Trump's travel ban.

The final cable seen by Reuters, issued last Friday, leaves in place an instruction to consular chiefs in each diplomatic mission, or post, to convene working groups of law enforcement and intelligence officials to "develop a list of criteria identifying sets of post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny." Applicants falling within one of these identified population groups should be considered for higher-level security screening, according to the cable last Friday.

Those population groups would likely vary from country to country, according to sources familiar with the cables, as the memo last Friday does not explicitly provide for coordination between the embassies.

Mr Trump has said enhanced screening of foreigners is necessary to protect the country against terrorist attacks.

Advocates and immigration lawyers said the guidance could lead to visa applicants being profiled on the basis of nationality or religion, rather than because they pose an actual threat to the US.

"Most posts already have populations that they look at for fraud and security issues," said Seattle-based immigration attorney Jay Gairson, who has many clients from countries that would be affected by Mr Trump's 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."

Ms Virginia Elliott, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the department was working to implement Mr 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."

State Department officials declined to comment on the specifics of the cables, saying they were internal communications.

Reuters could not determine to what extent the cables departed from guidance given to consular officers under previous administrations, since this type of guidance is not made public.

Some of the language in the cables is similar to statements made by US officials in the past.

Some consular officials suggested some of the guidance last Friday - aside from identifying particular populations and doing more social media checks - differed little from current practice, since vetting of visa applicants is already rigorous.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2017, with the headline 'US embassies told to identify groups for tougher screening'. Print Edition | Subscribe