Every Visa Decision is a National Security Decision

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A stock image of one part of a U.S. visa

Every Visa Decision is a National Security Decision

The Department of State has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad. I could not be prouder of the work we do to inform citizens, respond in emergencies, and provide Americans with the very passports they need to travel overseas. In addition, our employees overseas and here in the United States also play a critical role in protecting our borders. I’d like to take advantage of the new year to reflect for a bit on the important work we do to strengthen U.S. national security, particularly as it relates to how we execute our responsibility to enforce our immigration rules. As the agency that issues and refuses both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas overseas, we recognize that every visa decision is a national security decision that affects individual Americans. During President Donald J. Trump’s first year in office, the Bureau of Consular Affairs has taken a number of steps together with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the intelligence and law enforcement communities to enhance our ability to make sure that people who mean us harm do not get visas to the United States.

In order to protect our border, while at the same time facilitating legitimate trade and travel, we employ vetting and screening procedures that give visa adjudicators the best information the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence community has to offer. The White House has made it a top priority to improve our screening processes, and the Department continues to work closely with partner agencies to more effectively identify individuals who might pose a threat to the United States.

This collaboration with our interagency partners has further enhanced the rigorous vetting and screening of all applicants for immigration benefits. For example, in May we began collecting data including social media and additional contact information from certain visa applicants. 

We also draw on information provided by foreign governments to make visa decisions. As directed by President Trump, the interagency developed new global requirements for information sharing in support of immigration screening and vetting. Our embassies overseas engaged with foreign governments to ensure they provide the information we need to facilitate travel by their citizens to the United States. For some countries that were unwilling or unable to do so, we restricted entry of their citizens. We continue to work with countries to assist them in addressing deficiencies and achieving improved information-sharing. 

The employees of the Bureau of Consular Affairs constantly evaluate whether we are making the right decisions and using the right information to strengthen U.S. national security. A question that frequently comes up is how we address the problem of those who overstay their visas in the United States. In fact the presumption that an applicant is an intending immigrant is the most common reason for a visa denial (under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act) and in some countries large percentages of people are routinely denied visas for this reason. Working closely with our partners in DHS, consular professionals around the world regularly analyze visa overstay trends and put this information to use, as we work to reduce overstay rates.  

Those who overstay their visas, or commit criminal acts in the United States, may face removal.  We work closely with DHS to compel countries to take back their nationals who have been ordered removed from the United States. For example, in 2017, the Department imposed visa sanctions on four countries whose governments failed to take back their citizens and led discussions with governments worldwide to stress the potential consequences of failing to cooperate with the United States on this matter. This already delivered results. The Gambia responded positively to DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s requests to accept aliens under order of removal, and consequently we resumed normal visa processing there.

When you think about national security, know that you have a dedicated team of consular professionals working at the Department of State and at embassies and consulates around the world. I’m proud of the work we do to make timely visa decisions grounded in law that ultimately strengthen our country. Our efforts to facilitate travel supports the U.S. economy and creates jobs while building relationships between the United States citizens and people from other countries. We execute this responsibility with the security of our country and the safety of our people always in the front of our minds. This year, we will work with our interagency partners and foreign allies to continue to strengthen U.S. national security.

About the Author: Carl C. Risch is the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.