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Getting a U.S. Visa May Get Much Harder

New guidelines, sent in memos to embassies around the world, call for the review of social media accounts for select travelers from parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Travelers looking to visit the U.S. should expect longer lines at embassies and a more challenging visa application process following a new set of guidelines put out by the State Department. Reuters reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has sent cables to embassies around the world calling on consular officers to identify "populations warranting increased scrutiny" and intensify screening for visa applicants that fall under those groups.

This doesn't apply to citizens of the 38 (mostly European) countries covered by the visa waiver program—places like Germany, the United Kingdom, and Australia—which grants entry to the U.S. for 90 days without having to go through the visa process. This does, however, slow down people applying for all kinds of visas—business travelers, tourists, students—from countries in the Middle East, Africa, and most of Asia. This is already a lengthy ordeal that can take months, if not years, to complete.

One of the cables, obtained by The New York Times, includes an order for embassies to create "working groups" to "develop a list of criteria identifying sets of post applicant populations warranting increased scrutiny." For those "populations" seeking visas, the cables ask consular officers to ask for extra information, like for a person's travel history and prior employers over the last 15 years, and all email addresses and social media handles used over the last five years. The memo doesn't specify the full range of visa applicants who'll face extra scrutiny, leaving that up to individual embassies, but it does say that any applicant who has ever been in "ISIS-controlled territory" should be subject to additional screening.

While the new policies are in line with President Donald Trump's campaign promises that he would impose "extreme vetting" for visitors to the U.S., some are concerned it will lead to profiling on the basis of nationality or religion, rather than actual threat levels. "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," Jay Gairson, a Seattle-based immigration attorney, told Reuters. The memos—four in total, sent between March 10 and March 17—quote President Trump in explaining the new procedures: "This Nation cannot delay the immediate implementation of additional heightened screening and vetting protocols and procedures for issuing visas to ensure that we strengthen the safety and security of our country," it reads.

The United States issued more than 10 million visas in 2016, a number that seems set to decrease this year. "Consular officers should not hesitate to refuse any case presenting security concerns," Secretary Tillerson writes. He also acknowledges that the increased security would cause "backlogs to rise." Meanwhile, as consular officers are asked to do more, the national budget put forward by the Trump administration calls for a 28 percent cutin funding to the State Department.


by Sebastian Modak

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