US embassies ordered to identify population groups for tougher visa screening

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK, March 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed U.S. 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 what two former U.S. officials said would be a broad, labor-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 Tillerson over the last two weeks provide insight into how the U.S. government is implementing what President Donald Trump has called "extreme vetting" of foreigners entering the United States, a major campaign promise. The cables also demonstrate the administrative and logistical hurdles the White House faces in executing its vision. (To read the cables click here: http://tmsnrt.rs/2ngUxrH)

The memos, which have not been previously reported, provided instructions for implementing 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.

34 PHOTOS
Protests erupt throughout US cities over Trump immigration ban
See Gallery
Protests erupt throughout US cities over Trump immigration ban
Demonstrators gather in Copley Square for the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
An international traveler smiles as she walks past the protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
Demonstrators yell slogans during protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Ted Soqui
Sarah Ijaz joins the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
BOSTON - JANUARY 29: People hold signs as they march from Copley Square to the Mass. State House in Boston on Jan. 29, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Muslim women pray during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
People gather to pray in baggage claim during a protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
Eight year-old Esma, an Irish-Moroccan-American, prays with other Muslim women during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators spell out "# No Muslim Ban" during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Izzy Berdan (R) joins the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Muslim women pray during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Muslim women pray during the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Demonstrators gather in Copley Square for the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
An activist holds a sign outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Samah Mansur, from Egypt, takes part in the "Boston Protest Against Muslim Ban and Anti-Immigration Orders" to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Activists gather outside the White House to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
People gather to protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
BOSTON - JANUARY 29: People hold signs as they gather in Copley Square in Boston on Jan. 29, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON - JANUARY 29: People gather in Copley Square in Boston on Jan. 29, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order banning people from several predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 29: Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., speaks with an ACLU legal observer during the protest at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. Protests erupted at airports around the country following President Trump's executive order restricting travel from several Islamic countries. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: A protester holds up a sign that reads, 'Banning Immigrants is UnAmerican!,' as she stands with others at the Miami International Airport against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Protesters stand together at the Miami International Airport against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Susan Barimo joins with other protesters as they stand together at the Miami International Airport against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries on January 29, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Demonstrators gathered at airports across the country in protest of the order. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
People gather outside Terminal 4 during a protest against Donald Trump's travel ban at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
International travelers walk past protestors holding signs as they protest against the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order, at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Laura Buckman
Protesters at Discovery Green Park during Super Bowl events in Houston, Texas, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Trish Badger
Dozens of pro-immigration demonstrators cheer and hold sign as international passengers arrive at Dulles International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump's executive order baring visitors, refugees and immigrants from certain countries to the United States, in Chantilly, Virginia, in suburban Washington, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Theiler
Activists march to the US Capitol to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Activists march to the US Capitol to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Activists gather at the US Capitol to protest President Donald Trump's executive actions on immigration in Washington January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

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

The final cable seen by Reuters, issued on March 17, 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 March 17 cable.

Those population groups would likely vary from country to country, according to sources familiar with the cables, as the March 17 memo does not explicitly provide for coordination between the embassies.

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 United States.

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

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

CABLE FLURRY

In cables dated March 10 and March 15, Tillerson issued detailed instructions to consular officials for implementing Trump's travel order, which was due to take effect on March 16.

Following successful legal challenges to an earlier, more sweeping travel ban signed by Trump in January, the White House issued a narrower version of the ban earlier this month. On the same day Tillerson sent out his memo about implementing the new executive order on March 15, a federal court in Hawaii enjoined key parts of the order. That forced him to send another cable on March 16, rescinding much of his earlier guidance.

On March 17, Tillerson issued a fourth cable that set out a new list of instructions for consular officials. At the same time, it withdrew more sections of the March 15 guidance, because they had been issued without approval from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is responsible for reviewing all agency rules.

A White House spokesman referred questions about the cables to the State Department and OMB.

19 PHOTOS
Reunions, greetings and goodbyes amid immigration ban
See Gallery
Reunions, greetings and goodbyes amid immigration ban

International travelers are greeted as they arrive at John F. Kennedy international airport in New York City, U.S., February 4, 2017.

(REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Kiki Rahmati, from Iran, cries as lead attorney Susan Church greets her at Logan International Airport in Boston on Feb. 3, 2017. She was initially not allowed to enter the US after President Donald Trump's travel ban.

(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A relative of Fuad Sharef, an Iraqi with an immigration visa who was prevented with his family from boarding a flight to New York a week ago, hugs his daughter goodbye in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq February 4, 2017, before going to the airport to fly, on Turkish Airlines, to Nashville, Tennessee, their new home.

(REUTERS/Ahmed Saad)

Behnam Partopour, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student from Iran, is greeted by friends at Logan Airport after he cleared U.S. customs and immigration on an F1 student visa in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. February 3, 2017. Partopour was originally turned away from a flight to the U.S. following U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Fuad Sharef, an Iraqi with an immigration visa who was prevented with his family from boarding a flight to New York a week ago, kisses his relatives goodbye at his home in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq February 4, 2017, before going to the airport to fly, on Turkish Airlines, to Nashville, Tennessee, his new home.

(REUTERS/Ahmed Saad)

Fuad Sharef, an Iraqi with an immigration visa who was prevented with his family from boarding a flight to New York a week ago, hug his relatives goodbye at Erbil International Airport, Iraq February 4, 2017, to fly, on Turkish Airlines, to Nashville, Tennessee, their new home.

(REUTERS/Ahmed Saad)

Behnam Partopour, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student from Iran, is greeted by his sister Bahar (L) at Logan Airport after he cleared U.S. customs and immigration on an F1 student visa in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. February 3, 2017. Partopour was originally turned away from a flight to the U.S. following U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Samira Asgari is greeted by a friend after she cleared U.S. customs and immigration in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. February 3, 2017. Asgari is an Iranian scientist who had obtained a visa to conduct research at Brigham and Women's Hospital and was twice prevented from entering the United States under President Trump's executive order travel ban.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Banah Alhanfy, from Ira, is hugged and handed a rose after arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston on Feb. 3, 2017. Banah was initially not allowed to enter the US after President Donald Trump's travel ban.

(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Kiki Rahmati, from Iran, hugs someone that met her at Logan International Airport in Boston on Feb. 3, 2017. She was initially not allowed to enter the US after President Donald Trump's travel ban.

(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Dr. Muhamad Alhaj Moustafa, a Syrian citizen, embraces his wife Nabil Alhaffar, also a Syrian citizen, after she returned from a trip to Doha but was denied re-entry in January, at the international arrivals hall at Washington Dulles International Airport February 6, 2017 in Dulles, Virginia. A US appeals court has rejected a government request to immediately reinstate US President Donald Trump's controversial immigration ban -- the latest twist in what could be a long, high-stakes legal battle.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Salwa Tabiedi greets her son Hussamedin Agabani, a Sudanese citizen who was arriving in the United States for the first time, at the international arrivals hall at Washington Dulles International Airport February 6, 2017 in Dulles, Virginia.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Nazanin Zinouri, an Iranian engineer, is received by supporters at the Greenville Spartanburg Airport February 6, 2017 in Greenville, South Carolina. Zinouri, a Clemson graduate, works for a technology firm in Greenville, South Carolina and has lived in the United States for the last seven years. While attempting to return to South Carolina after a recent trip visiting family in Iran, she had been taken off her flight in Dubai as a result of the recent travel and immigration ban ordered by President Donald Trump.

(Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Shanez Tabarsi (L) is greeted by her daughter Negin after traveling to the U.S. from Iran following a federal court's temporary stay of U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order travel ban at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. February 6, 2017.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Ali Alghazali, 13, a Yemeni who was previously prevented from boarding a plane to the U.S. following U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on travel ban, hugs his uncle Saleh Alghazali, upon Ali's arrival at Terminal 4 at JFK airport in Queens, New York City, New York, U.S. February 5, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joe Penney)

Najmia Abdishakur (R), a Somali national who was delayed entry to the U.S. because of the recent travel ban, is greeted by her mother Zahra Warsma (L) at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S. February 6, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Mustafa Aidid (center R), a Somali national who was delayed entry into the U.S. because of the recent travel ban, is reunited with his brother Taha Aidid (center L) at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S. February 6, 2017.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Ammar Aquel Mohammed Aziz (R), hugs his father Aquel (2nd R), as his brother Tareq (L) hugs his uncle Jamil Assa (2nd L) after the brothers arrived from Yemen at Dulles International airport on February 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. The brothers were prohibited from entering the U.S. a week ago due to tightened immigration policies established by the Trump administration, but were able to travel freely this week following a court injunction halting the implementation of the immigration policy.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

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, including the line that "all visa decisions are national security decisions," is similar to statements made by U.S. officials in the past.

Some consular officials suggested some of the March 17 guidance – aside from identifying particular populations and doing more social media checks - differed little from current practice, since vetting of visa applicants is already rigorous.

PHONE NUMBERS, EMAIL ADDRESSES

Among the instructions rescinded by Tillerson were a set of specific questions for applicants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the countries targeted by Trump's March 6 executive order, as well as members of populations identified as security risks.

The questions asked where applicants had lived, traveled and worked over the previous 15 years. Applicants would also have been required to provide prior passport numbers and all phone numbers, email addresses and social media handles used in the previous five years.

The March 16 and 17 cables from Tillerson instructed consular officers not to ask those questions, due to court action and pending approval by the OMB.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called for wider social media screening for those seeking to enter the United States, saying that such checks could help to spot possible links to terrorist activity.

Some former officials and immigration attorneys cautioned that delving deeper into applicants' social media use could significantly lengthen processing time of visas.

"There's so much social media out there," said Anne Richard, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. "It's not something you can do on a timely basis."

Both the March 15 and March 17 cables seem to anticipate delays as a result of their implementation. They urged embassies to restrict the number of visa interviews handled per day, acknowledging this "may cause interview appointment backlogs to rise."

(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott in Washington; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.