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White House Institutes New “Visa Vetting Form” – Form DS-5535

stack of paper

In true presidential fashion, President Trump tweeted over the weekend that his administration will begin to conduct “extreme vetting” of visa applicants under the pretense of improving national security.  This vetting process will be implemented through the consular officers’ use of the new Form DS-5535, which the Department of State approved last month.

Form DS-5535

The new form is essentially a supplemental questionnaire that consular officers who review applications for U.S. visas may require visa applicants to complete.  The questionnaire is three pages long and requests that applicants provide their passports and travel history (i.e., countries to which the applicants have traveled) for the past 15 years.  The questionnaire also requires the applicants to disclose the source of the funds that they used to finance those trips.  In addition to the travel history information, the form asks for the applicant’s past 15 years of addresses, employment positions, and spouses.  Perhaps the most widely criticized part of the new questionnaire is that it also asks for the applicant’s user names or user handles that they have used in social media accounts in the past five years.

According to the administration, the purpose of the questions on the new form is to readily identify applicants who traveled to areas that have been occupied by or in the control of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.

The Parameters of the Extreme Visa Vetting

The Department of State has reported that the new questionnaire will not be required of all applicants, but only those whom the consular officers deem – in their discretion – to require a more rigorous interview and background check.  The Department estimates that only 65,000 of a projected 13 million visa applicants will be required to complete the questionnaire, an amount that represents approximately 0.5 percent of applicants.  These new vetting procedures are currently authorized to remain in effect until November, but it is assumed that this timeframe will be continuously extended, if not made permanent, by the administration.

The Public’s Reaction

The new questionnaire has received much criticism from immigrant rights advocacy groups and attorneys.  Attorneys are fearful that the use of the questionnaire will serve to further elongate visa processing wait times, which already exceed six months at some of the busier consulate posts.  These delays are especially problematic for tech companies that make use of the H-1B visas and L-1 visas in order to bring talented foreign workers to the United States to fill specialty positions.  Delays in these workers coming to the U.S. will have a significant and adverse impact on the ability of U.S.-based companies to be competitive in the global marketplace, thereby threatening the economic stability of that industry.

Additionally, after the questionnaire was posted for public comment in May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent the Department of State a nine-page letter in an attempt to convince the Department to reject the questionnaire.  The ACLU letter argues that the questions are overly broad and intrusive and that they impinge on privacy and freedom of speech rights.

The Rant

Will a questionnaire really catch a terrorist? Questionnaires are of limited utility since it is doubtful that any question would have elicited an honest response from the 9/11 hijackers about their intent to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The real point: the key to finding a terrorist is specific intelligence about an individual who might be dangerous, not whether or not that individual slips up and checks the box next to “Yes, I am a terrorist.”

Faced with the realization that the questionnaire is a feckless tool to discover one’s true evil intentions, the best justification for depending on a questionnaire as a law enforcement and vetting tool is to discover that the visa applicant may, in the future, be in a position to commit perjury in future applications and therefore the extensive visa questionnaire gives the government an easy way for detaining and deporting dangerous immigrants living in our midst, even after they become American citizens by arguing fraud or perjury at a later time. The truth is this vetting is not about protecting the U.S. from a future attack, rather it is more likely a tool for punitive action against someone who has become undesirable. And, if it is discovered that someone lied on her initial immigration application, it is possible to undue all subsequent future immigration benefits conferred, including de-naturalizing someone (stripping her of her citizenship).

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to require a more thorough vetting of foreign nationals to the U.S. But, let’s be honest about it. This won’t stop the terrorists from coming into the U.S., and we shouldn’t tell ourselves that it will. Fooling ourselves into believing that using a more thorough questionnaire makes us safer actually makes us less safe. And that is the rant.

Additional Blog Posts:

The Possible Impact of Sequestration for Employers and Immigrant Workers, ImmigRantings, April 22, 2013

More States Expected to Exert Control Regarding Illegal Immigration Problems, ImmigRantings, August 3, 2013