By Attorney Brittany M. Milliasseau
Earlier this year, President Trump issued a memorandum which directed the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security to implement heightened screening and vetting of applications for visas and other immigration benefits. The memorandum explained the need for immediate implementation of additional heightened screening and vetting protocols and procedures in order to ensure the safety and security of the country. Particularly, the changes are aimed at keeping citizens safe from terrorist attacks and preventing entry into the United States of foreign nationals “who may aid, support, or commit violent, criminal, or terrorist acts.”
In response to this directive, the Department of State proposed the creation of a new immigration form titled DS-5535, Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants. This form will require visa applicants to provide their travel history, including source of funding, for the last 15 years, employment and address history for the last 15 years, phone numbers and email addresses for the last five years, names and dates of birth for all siblings, children, and current and former spouses, among other specific information. Applicants will also be asked to recount the details of their travel history and provide supporting documentation. In addition, the form will also request applicants to provide their social media identifiers and handles for the last five years. While the Department of State has stated that this form will not be required for all visa applicants and will be focused on “populations warranting increased scrutiny” it is expected to impact approximately 65,000 visa applicants worldwide each year.
Critics of this new form argue that these requests for additional information will place an overwhelming burden on applicants and lead to unwarranted visa denials and potential misrepresentation findings. The Department of State has explained that failure to provide the requested information will not necessarily result in a visa denial “if the consular officer determines the applicant has provided a credible explanation why he or she cannot answer a question or provide requested supporting documentation, such that the consular officer is able to conclude that the applicant has provided adequate information to determine the applicant’s eligibility to receive the visa.” However, most applicants may have difficulty recalling specific information solicited in the application and may inadvertently answer questions on the forms incorrectly. Such mistakes could in turn lead to denial of the application and allegations of misrepresentation, which could ultimately lead to inadmissibility for future immigration benefits.
Further, critics of the new form are concerned about how the information obtained about social media platforms will be utilized. What specific information will officers use to determine visa eligibility after viewing an applicant’s social media profile? Will officers review the social media profiles of applicant’s friends and relatives? Will seemingly innocent and harmless communication between friends be misconstrued? Many of these questions remain unanswered.
The Office of Management and Budget recently approved the proposed rule and the Department of State has begun utilizing the supplemental questionnaire. While there remains uncertainty regarding the impact this new form will have on visa adjudication, it serves as a valuable reminder that individuals should be cautious when applying for both immigrant and non-immigrant visas. All visa applicants should consult with an experienced immigration attorney to determine their visa eligibility. In addition, applicants should utilize the services of a knowledgeable immigration attorney to assist in preparation and review of their visa application prior to submission to the Embassy or Consulate. As mentioned above, even a seemingly innocent mistake on a visa application could have dire consequences for visa applicants and even potentially lead to inadmissibility issues in the future. Any information provided to consular officers, or any immigration agency should be carefully prepared and reviewed by experienced counsel.
As these new vetting procedures become implemented, longer visa wait times, consular delays, and increased denials are projected. Individuals that are looking to apply for visas are encouraged to do so as early as possible in order to avoid delays. In addition, applicants should seek counsel to make sure their visa applications are prepared completely and accurately in order to curb preventable processing delays. While it is extremely important to be represented by competent immigration counsel for applications submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it is equally as important to consult with immigration counsel regarding immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applications submitted to the Department of State and to speak with an immigration attorney for preparation prior to attending a consular interview.