Although much of the controversy surrounding “extreme vetting” has focused on President Donald Trump’s Executive Order and its visa issuance restrictions on six Muslim countries (Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Libya), recent memorandum sent by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to U.S. embassies previews what “extreme vetting” will mean for the majority of visa applicants when put into practice. Heightened scrutiny and invasive requests for personal information may be administered on more visa applicants than originally thought, even individuals from visa waiver countries. In spite of the fact that it is hard to know exactly what procedures will be utilized in the coming months, one thing can certainly be anticipated by new visa applicants: Enhanced skepticism and scrutiny.

The Diplomatic Cables

In diplomatic cables dated March 10, 2017 and March 15, 2017, Secretary Tillerson issued detailed instructions to consular officials for implementing Trump’s travel order, which was due to take effect on March 16. After the federal courts blocked the revised executive order, a March 16, 2017 memo was sent out rescinding most of the heightened scrutiny procedures that were to be levied on the six countries from the executive order. However, the March 17, 2017 memo, the fourth and final diplomatic cable, still emphasized increased scrutiny across the board. Moreover, the temporarily rescinded language from the earlier cables give a glimpse to the public about what can be expected to occur if the executive order is not defeated in court or a slightly different version ends up being enacted. While much of the executive order has been put on hold by the federal courts, the attempt to enhance vetting procedures has been allowed to proceed.

Important Information Derived from Cables

For the most part, the cables ordered officials to deny any visa application that presents “security concerns” and to minimize the number of interviews scheduled each day as a way to guarantee each application is properly inspected. Arguably the cables most concerning and important language gave instruction to consular chiefs in each diplomatic 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.” If a visa applicant falls within one of these identified population groups, he/she will be considered for enhanced scrutiny and screening. This instruction was not rescinded and is therefore the policy going forward.

Developing a list of criteria to determine particular populations that warrant increased scrutiny opens the door for consular posts to utilize race, national origin, and religion as triggering factors for this heightened scrutiny. This heightened scrutiny will entail new questions targeting information related to an applicant’s use of social media, his/her phone, and the internet. For example, the cables instructed officials to ask visa applicants additional questions, such as listing all email addresses and social-media handles used in the past five years, as well as the applicant’s travel history, employers and addresses over the past 15 years. Moreover, while visitors have had their phones examined at ports of entry, a phone review has not been routinely requested during the application stage, but that may change in the coming months. With plans to ask applicants for their social media handles and passwords in conjunction with possible phone searches, the vetting process will likely become time-consuming and invasive for many who never envisioned this type of questioning. Refusing to partake risks application denial, creating a tough decision for many applicants who encounter enhanced scrutiny. Although a later cable suggested pumping the brakes on utilizing these type of questions, it is a clear indication of what can be expected of vetting in the near future.

Possible Effects of New and Forthcoming Policy

What does this mean for the majority of travelers, even those from one of the thirty-eight countries in the visa waiver program? For one, the more methodical and careful approach will lead to a backlog at some or all U.S. consulates around the word. Secretary Tillerson admitted delay in visa issuance was a likely effect of the new policy. Also, it is clear that there will be a significant increase in demands for information from a great deal of visa applicants, not just those that come from one of the six countries named in the March executive order. Homeland Security officials have stated that the agency is planning to significantly increase demands for information from all visa applicants. With the visa application process becoming even more time-consuming, applicants will benefit by being prepared for these new procedures at the outset.

However, it will not be easy for an individual to anticipate when enhanced scrutiny is likely to occur. For example, littered throughout the cables is language regarding heightened scrutiny to be implemented on applicants who have visited or lived in areas controlled by ISIS. This is vague language that can seemingly be applied in various different ways without much notice to applicants. What countries/areas will the government say are or have been under the control of ISIS? How much presence is needed to have visited that area? Will a list of these places be made public? These questions remained unanswered.

Some consular officials suggest that only the language regarding social media checks and identifying particular populations is newsworthy, since the vetting process is already quite exacting. Nevertheless, it is clear that the new administration will push for updated procedures to enhance scrutiny for the majority of visa applicants. Only time will tell what directives are actually implemented from these cables, but it can be expected that the process will become more onerous for almost all applicants.

Timeline Summary

March 10, 2017 — Guidance meant to inform all visa issuing posts about new policies stemming from President Trump’s Executive Order 13780 (Six Country Travel Ban).
March 15, 2017 — More specific action request regarding suspension of visa issuance to six countries named in Executive Order 13780. Guidance was meant to go into effect officially the following day.
March 16, 2017 — Cable halted implementation of guidance and protocol laid out in previous cables due to executive order being blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii.
March 17, 2017 — Action request informing all visa issuing posts of what guidance and protocol was still intact immediately moving forward and what was temporarily rescinded.