Comments to Department of State Urge Government to Abandon New “Extreme Vetting” Initiatives

May 18, 2017

On May 4, 2017, the U.S. State Department issued a request for emergency approval of a new information collection initiative. The proposed policy, which implements the president’s March 6, 2017 executive order banning travel from six predominantly Muslim countries, would enable consular officials to collect additional information from immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants determined to warrant additional scrutiny pursuant to undisclosed criteria.

Today, 35 civil and human rights groups submitted comments raising a host of fundamental objections to the proposed questions. The groups made four principal objections:

The proposed collection excessively burdens visa applicants: The department’s request for details about applicants’ social media handles is ambiguous and overbroad, and it may be impossible for many to comply with the proposed collection of 15 years’ worth of foreign and domestic travel history;

Information that is captured will be difficult to interpret and the process will chill free expression: Communications on social media are difficult, if not impossible, to interpret accurately, even more so in the context of unfamiliar cultures and languages, and applicants and their American contacts may proactively censor themselves;

Muslims will be primarily burdened: The history of these vetting procedures suggests that they are likely to be applied disproportionately to Muslim applicants, disfavoring individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs;

There is no evidence that foreign visitors pose a significant threat to the U.S.: Data from the last 30 years shows that Americans have just a 1 in 3.6 million chance of being murdered by a terrorist attack on U.S. soil that was committed by a foreigner, as compared to a 1 in 14,000 chance of being murdered by anyone.

In sum, the Department of State’s rushed information collection initiative will create unnecessary burdens for those seeking to come to the United States and will create an infrastructure through which policies that discriminate against Muslims may be administered.

“The proposed information collection is simply another way of instituting the Muslim Ban that has been blocked by the courts,” said Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “It will create even more paperwork for an already overburdened consular system and there is nothing to suggest that it will make us safer.”

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Senior Counsel to the LNS Program, added, “The proposed collection of social media handles is particularly concerning. Any applicant who believes they have something to hide will simply sanitize their social media accounts; at the same time, it is likely to dissuade applicants from saying anything remotely controversial, for fear of being denied entrance to the country.”

Read the full comments here.

Read more about the Brennan Center’s work on Liberty & National Security.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Blaire Perel at (646)925-8734 or perelb@brennan.law.nyu.edu.

###