Donald Trump built his campaign around building up walls, promising to clamp down on illegal immigration and enact stricter screening to protect the nation’s security and economy. Funding for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexican border has yet to materialize, and his travel ban on six Muslim-majority nations is set for a legal showdown in the Supreme Court this fall. But Trump has steadily pushed ahead with his vow to more closely screen those who want to visit, study, work or seek refuge in the United States.
As a candidate, he repeatedly pledged to implement more “extreme vetting” of foreigners coming to the United States but was vague about what exactly that would entail. In a series of measures over the last several months, however, the president has made real his promise to increase government scrutiny of travelers to the U.S.
In late June, Trump slowed down the visa application process when he signed an executive order rescinding an Obama-era order that sought to speed up visa processing.
The 2012 order signed by Obama had instructed the State Department to “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receipt of application,” according to a report by The Hill. White House spokesman Michael Short told the newspaper’s Jordan Fabian and Morgan Chalfant that it makes little sense to rush the screening process “to accommodate an arbitrary deadline.”
Even before Trump signed this order, however, the State Department was acting on instructions to increase vetting of visa applicants. In March, Trump launched a review of vetting procedures for all international visitors to the U.S. In response, the Departments of State and Homeland Security quietly enhanced their vetting procedures.
On March 23, Reuters reported on a series of cables directing U.S. consular officers to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and beef up screening for them, in addition to conducting a “mandatory social media check” for all applicants who have been in territory controlled by the Islamic State.
In those cables, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said the number of visa interviews conducted by each consular official should be limited to a maximum of 120 per day, acknowledging that this schedule “may cause interview appointment backlogs to rise.”
There has even been speculation that consular functions would move from the State Department to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). On June 30, CNN reported on a White House memo that would shift State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs and Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration to DHS. The Bureau of Consular Affairs, which issues passports and processes visa applications, is the State Department’s largest bureau in terms of personnel and is funded almost entirely through revenue generated by consular fees, which amounted to a little over $4 billion in 2015.
While the proposal is far from being finalized, it has already reportedly sparked a backlash. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin wrote on July 9 that Secretary Tillerson is pushing back against the plan, which was reportedly crafted by White House policy adviser Stephen Miller in a bid to get “tougher” on immigration policy.
The idea behind the proposal is to streamline the vetting process and improve security, a position supported by the “Listening Report” Tillerson commissioned to review the State Department’s organizational structure, according to Rogin. But critics say there is no evidence the change would accomplish either goal, and that DHS is already involved in the refugee resettlement program, which they argue is a humanitarian endeavor that should remain in the hands of diplomatically trained officials rather than law enforcement officers.
Beyond the debate over how the U.S. should screen visa applicants is the separate issue of Trump’s legally fraught travel ban, which put a 90-day pause on entry from six predominately Muslim nations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — and a 120-day pause on the entire refugee resettlement program in order to conduct a thorough assessment of vetting procedures.
But as The New York Times noted in a June 11 article, that review hasn’t progressed despite the Supreme Court allowing parts of the revised travel ban to go into effect. “Mr. Trump’s lawyers have moved slowly in responding to legal challenges to the White House’s initial and revised travel bans. And immigration experts say the administration has not taken steps it could have — even while the latest ban is tied up in the courts — to achieve the restriction’s stated goal: to tighten the vetting of people trying to get into the United States,” wrote Michael D. Shear and Ron Nixon. “The result has been that almost halfway through his first year in office, Mr. Trump has made few changes to the way people enter the United States from the countries he has deemed the most dangerous, despite his frequent campaign promises to institute ‘extreme vetting.’”
The issue will come to a head this October when the Supreme Court hears arguments on the constitutionality of the travel ban, although the case could become moot if the administration concludes its review by then. In the meantime, however, the president is unlikely to relent on his signature campaign promise: to weed out potential terrorists from entering the country.
In fact, Trump’s travel ban also capped the number of refugees at 50,000 — down from the 110,000 refugees Obama aimed to resettle this fiscal year — and the government hit that cap in July, meaning that thousands of refugees could be shut out.
Trump’s supporters point out that setting immigration directives in the name of national security is well within the scope of the executive branch. They also say it is his job to determine who is a danger to Americans, especially in a constantly changing threat environment.
Marc A. Thiessen, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), argues that the current visa screening process is “badly broken.”
“In 2015, the State Department admitted to Congress that it had revoked the visas of 9,500 individuals since 2001 who were believed to have either engaged in terrorist activities or were associated with a terrorist organization. That’s 9,500 people who beat our screening procedures, and got visas to enter the United States, only to later be discovered as having terrorist ties,” he wrote in a June 27 AEI brief. “And last year, news broke that the at least 1,600 immigrants, who were supposed to be deported because they posed a threat to national security, were instead mistakenly granted U.S. citizenship.”
But critics counter that more rigorous screening measures are unwarranted and redundant. They argue that current procedures, which were strengthened after 9/11, are already some of the most stringent in the world, with thousands of State Department officials working with DHS, the United Nations and other agencies to vet refugees and other would-be travelers. These officials are already trained to look for security risks, fraud and other dangers from particular hotspots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where applicants are already subject to extensive background checks that can include phone, medical and financial records.
Critics also worry about the economic costs of Trump’s vetting plan and whether it would needlessly deter tourists, students and highly skilled workers from coming to the U.S. The president’s “extreme vetting” was initially thought to affect even U.S. allies such as Britain and other European countries. But when the measures were announced on June 28, they excluded travelers who can come to the U.S. under the visa waiver program, which includes most European nations as well as Australia and Japan, although they still apply to roughly 150 other nations.
That’s why the tourism industry in particular remains concerned that erecting more barriers sends the wrong message. Jonathan Grella, executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association, wrote in an April 17 commentary that “after a “lost decade” of international travel growth in the U.S., fueled by complex, often lengthy security procedures coupled with perceptions abroad post-9/11 that discouraged many visitors, international travel only recently regained its pre-2001 market share. That progress could easily be rolled back, if the Trump administration does not campaign consistently to sway travelers in our direction.” He noted that travel is a top-10 employer in 49 states and D.C., supporting 15.3 million U.S. jobs, and that international travel, in particular, is America’s number-one service export.
Meanwhile, immigrant rights advocates argue that stricter vetting procedures raise the potential for racial and religious profiling, and they question the usefulness of Trump’s call to interrogate travelers based on an “ideological test” of values, a concept reminiscent of the Cold War. They also say that gathering more personal information like social media handles will require significant additional resources and time, and may constitute a violation of privacy.
In a Senate hearing on border security in April, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly raised the possibility that airport and customs officials would start inspecting tourists’ mobile phones and request the passwords to their social media accounts.
But he cautioned that “very small numbers” would be asked to share passwords, estimating that “one half of one percent might have their device looked at” — amid the millions of people who enter the U.S. every day.
Nevertheless, the mere suggestion itself immediately drew the attention — and opposition — of civil rights activists and internet advocacy groups. One such group is the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), based in Washington, D.C., which advocates for global online privacy rights.
“We understand any country’s need to protect its borders, but this goes far beyond any reasonable requirements, and far beyond what is proportionate,” said CDT President and CEO Nuala O’Connor, who previously served as the chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2005.
“We want a functioning federal government, but we also want it to be effective,” O’Connor said, adding that “this is not the most targeted, effective way” to find and stop terrorists.
But DHS says these “enhanced security measures” are necessary to provide better protection of potential U.S. targets and international travelers.
“[B]ecause commercial aviation remains a major target for terrorists, and in response to urgent and evolving threats, DHS is implementing new enhanced security measures to improve screening of passengers and electronic devices and heighten security standards for aircraft and airports with direct flights into the United States,” said David Lapan, a spokesman for DHS, via email.
“The enhanced aviation security measures have already been implemented by some airlines and airports and additional changes will be made in the coming weeks and months,” he added.
A second concern with the Trump administration’s extreme vetting policies and enhanced security screenings is the threat of retaliation from other countries.
In a May 5 op-ed for Politico Magazine, Jonathan E. Meyer, a former DHS deputy general counsel, argued that Americans traveling abroad could soon face the same tough scrutiny — including being forced to hand over social media passwords — if the U.S. moves forward with such aggressive screening measures.
“Americans should ask: Do I want to hand over my social media passwords and personal contacts every time I go to the United Kingdom, Germany, or Italy? Let alone China, Russia or Turkey? Is it a smart policy to open the door for these other countries to reciprocate?” Meyer wrote.
He concedes that “there are certain types of travelers who warrant increased scrutiny,” but said that current policy allows for this — and that sophisticated terrorists are likely to cover their social media tracks before coming to the United States.
Meyer also cited the laptop ban on some international flights — following security warnings that terrorists could hide bombs in laptops — as an example of how the U.S. can work with allies to address threats.
In March, the U.S. imposed a ban on laptops in airplane cabins on direct flights to the U.S. from 10 Middle Eastern airports. The federal government was poised to expand that ban to all international flights bound for the U.S., but declined to do so as foreign airports agreed to comply with new U.S. security standards, according to a report by The Washington Post.
Currently, 280 airports in 105 countries will be required to comply with the new standards. Once they implement those standards, the U.S. lifts the laptop ban from their airports and they no longer have to prohibit passengers from carrying laptops onto departing flights for the U.S.
“There’s always going to be a balance you’re trying to strike between liberties and security,” Meyer said. But the point he sees getting lost in the discussion is whether the policy is effective or not and what are its ramifications.
His point was made sharper by a recent vote in the European Parliament. Responding to the U.S. refusal to waive visa requirements for all EU member states — visitors from Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland and Romania cannot enter the U.S. without a visa — the European Parliament voted to start requiring Americans to obtain visas to enter Europe. The European Commission rejected the vote, Meyer wrote, but the imposition of “extreme vetting” by the U.S. could revive the debate over slapping restrictions on American travelers.
Still, Meyer has no doubt that the outcome of these tougher policies will be increased vetting of travelers and tighter scrutiny of people coming to the U.S.
“The threat evolves and so our posture needs to evolve,” he said.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.