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State Department Directives Describe New Steps for US Visas


The United States has told its diplomats overseas to identify groups whose members should be thoroughly investigated when they request a visa. The State Department sent a series of directives to U.S. embassies and diplomatic offices earlier this month.

The department told them to investigate the social media messages and activities of visa applicants. It said officials should be looking for people who are suspected of terrorist ties or of having been in areas controlled by the Islamic State group.

Another directive ordered embassies to set up security and intelligence working groups to establish guidance for “population sets.” It said these measures would identify which people require a detailed investigation before they are permitted in the United States.

Even if someone is qualified for a visa, they could still be barred from entering the country if they do not meet the rules set by the working groups.

The directives are the first evidence of a Trump administration plan for the “extreme vetting” of foreigners before they are given visas.

Before becoming president, Donald Trump promised such a plan to American voters during the 2016 election campaign.

The four documents sent between March 10 and March 17 do not tell which “population sets” are to be given additional examination.

But one document says investigators should ask visa applicants about where they worked, who they worked for and where they traveled over the past 15 years. The document also tells investigators to ask applicants for all email addresses and social media names used over the past five years.

The State Department said later it was withdrawing the questions until they are approved by another federal agency.

The Reuters news agency first reported on the series of directives last week.

Rights groups and others have criticized the directives and accused Trump of discriminating against Muslims. They note his recent executive order to block travelers from six countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

A federal judge has suspended the government’s enforcement of the ban.

The rights group Amnesty International wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week. It said the documents “could provide license for discrimination based on national origin and religion. They could provide a pretext for barring individuals based on their nonviolent beliefs and expression. Social media checks, as well as demands for social media passwords at U.S. borders, have significant implications for privacy and freedom of expression.”

Law professor Anil Kalhan leads the international human rights committee of the New York City Bar Association. He said the documents “will needlessly worsen visa processing backlogs” and may lead to applications for visas being wrongly denied.

Some refugee aid groups and even State Department workers have said the visa investigation process is already very strong.

Stephen Yale-Loehr is an immigration law professor at Cornell University’s law school. Last month, he told CBS News “we have a terrorist watch database. We have known immigration violators database. We have a criminal background check database that they have to go through. They don’t just take the visa applicant’s word. They do go through all of these computer databases to verify for themselves that it’s appropriate to issue the visa to a particular individual.”

I’m Dorothy Gundy.

VOA’s Victoria Macchi and Smita Nordwall reported this story from Washington. VOA State Department Correspondent Cindy Saine provided information for the report. John Smith adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

applicant – n. someone who formally asks for something (such as a job or admission to a college); someone who applies for something

qualify – v. to have the right to do, have or be a part of something

vet – v. to investigate (someone) thoroughly to see if they should be approved or accepted for a job

license – n. freedom to act however you want to (usually followed by to + verb)

pretext – n. a reason that you give to hide your real reason for doing something

implication – n. a possible future effect or result (usually plural)

backlog – n. a large number of jobs that are waiting to be finished

database – n. a collection of pieces of information that is organized and used on a computer

verify – v. to prove, show, find out or state that (something) is true or correct

issue – v. to give (something) to someone in an official way

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