This story was inspired by several Make Me Smart listener questions.
America first. That is the promise President Trump made to American voters when he took office this January. Once in the White House, Trump wasted no time trying to deliver on his promise by issuing travel bans for people from certain countries. The same executive order also introduced extreme vetting procedures, many of which have yet to be publicly addressed by Trump’s administration.
They have, however, come up in congressional hearings — including the one held on Wednesday — and in the press via anonymous sources and leaked memos from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The four memos obtained by Reuters were addressed to U.S. embassies and consulates abroad and outlined some of the new extreme vetting procedures that Trump believes would help weed out terrorists from visa applicants.
Much remains unclear about the extreme vetting measures, but here is what we know so far:
Is extreme vetting in effect now?
Not quite. Some of the procedures were part of Trump’s travel ban. The second version of the travel ban was put on hold by a judge in Hawaii. However, the U.S. government is still trying to figure out how to implement the extreme vetting.
"In terms of what things will look like, it's still too early to say,” said Greg Chen, the director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
How would the extreme vetting work?
Applicants could be asked to do the following:
- Hand over their phones so that their contact list and photos could be examined by embassy or consulate staff
- Provide their social media handles and passwords so that both private and public posts can be viewed. Previously, the Department of Homeland Security has requested handles only to review public posts
- Provide 15 years’ worth of travel history, employment history and addresses
When he testified before Congress in February, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said applicants who refuse to hand over some of that information could be barred from coming to the U.S.
“We want to say, for instance, ‘What sites do you visit? And give us your passwords’ so that we can see what they do on the internet. If they don’t want to give us that information. then they don’t come,” he said.
At the hearing held Wednesday morning, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin pointed out this is nothing new and that 8,500 devices were previously searched in 2015 and 23,877 devices were searched in 2016 during the Obama administration.
“It’s done in a very small number of cases,” said Kelly, pointing out that maybe just half a percent of daily travelers are asked to hand over their electronics. “But whether it’s France, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Somalia, it won’t be routinely done at the port of entry.”
What does it mean for visa applicants in the meantime?
"The American Immigration Law Association does think that's going to impose potentially greater burdens and delays in the visa processing times,” said Chen.
Embassies and consulates will be setting up protocols about how to work with law enforcement and local intelligence groups and determine what kind of criteria and scrutiny should be applied to certain types of applicants. At the moment, said Chen, it’s not completely clear to whom the new additional procedures will apply.
It also might take longer to process a visa application. Previously, based on what country you were traveling from, the wait for an appointment could range from a few days to more than a week. Now that wait could be increased by days or even weeks, according to Chen.
What was the process like before?
Visas to the U.S. were not exactly given out willy-nilly.
“The vetting procedures before have always been very rigorous,” Chen said. After submitting the application, embassy or consulate staff would review your application and scheduled interviews for certain applicants.
There are different types of visas, such as tourist, student and business visas. Each have different requirements and can be issued for different amounts of time. Most Americans are not familiar with the visa requirements for foreigners, Chen said.
Besides meeting the requirements, applicants are also subject to interviews at their local embassies and consulates.
Are the interviews changing as well?
During his campaign, Trump said that only those who embrace American values will be issued visas. How exactly that will be determined remains to be seen, but the number of applicants asked to submit to an interview for their visa is expected to increase.
Tillerson’s memo about interviews indicated that the new procedures might create a backlog.
“In order to ensure that proper focus is given to each application, posts should generally not schedule more than 120 visa interviews per consular adjudicator/per day,” Tillerson wrote. “Please [note] that limiting scheduling may cause interview appointment backlogs to rise.”
According to Chen, 120 interviews per staff member per day result in interviews lasting four to five minutes each.
“That's already been the practice in the past for interview length — but the odd thing is that if this is meant for additional vetting screening procedures, they are not really giving more time to do these kind of interviews,” he said.
What are people asked in the interviews?
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, in addition to showing their social media accounts and handing over phones, travelers could be asked questions that are akin to an “ideological test” that Trump has called for in the past. The questions would focus on the traveler’s view of women’s treatment in society, whom they view as a legitimate target in a military operation and whether they believe in honor killings. Such screening could apply to travelers “from all over the world, including allies like France and Germany” that are among the 38 countries that are part of the visa waiver countries, the Journal reported.
Under the waiver program, travelers can visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa. Such travelers might be required to hand over their phones or be subject to interviews at the port of entry instead of embassy or consulate.
Earlier on Wednesday, while testifying before the U.S. Senate, Kelly said that the Journal report was not exactly accurate, specifically the questions mentioned above. He did not say what questions might be asked at a typical interview.
What could the extreme vetting help accomplish?
President Trump has said time and time again that extreme vetting will help ensure that potential terrorists are not allowed to travel to the U.S. However, Chen points out that by imposing more requirements without providing more time or resources to execute them could backfire.
"If you start requiring that a lot more people be screened with more time-intensive protocols like interviews or more substantial requirement for people to submit information, all that needs to be reviewed by consulate’s staff, and if they have to do it for a lot more individuals, that's going to take away resources from the cases where they really identified already some nexus for concern for national security purposes. But it really depends on how specific consulates identify who to target,” Chen said.
If all of the extreme vetting requirements are public, they won’t be as effective, Sen. Claire McCaskill argued on Wednesday. If the bad guys want to come to the U.S., they will just lie about their ideology and get rid of their phones or get new ones when traveling to the U.S., she said.
“Aren’t we just telling [the bad guys] what to do to get in?” McCaskill asked.
Will the new requirements affect the number of visas being issued?
That’s unclear, but the embassy and consulate staff have been advised to reject any application that raises concerns.
“Consular officers should not hesitate to refuse any case presenting security concerns,” Tillerson wrote in one of the leaked cables.
What effect might this have on people’s decision to travel to the U.S.?
Some like Chen predict that this might make some people rethink traveling to the U.S.
"Going back and finding 15 years of your life's history on something like where you lived and where you worked, different things about your history, your phone numbers — that would impose a lot more cost and burden on people and oftentimes these are going to be people we are talking about, they are business travelers,” Chen explained.
“Maybe they are planning to come to the United States or maybe some large company is trying to decide whether they should plan a conference in the United States or maybe in Canada or another country. And they see that it's going to take so much longer and create so much hassle for the people who they want to bring to the event that it's going to discourage travelers from coming here for short- or long-term visits. That will have an impact on American companies’ viability to do business.”