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Brennan Center Urges State Department to Abandon New “Extreme Vetting” Initiatives

The Brennan Center, joined by 34 other civil and human rights organizations, today submitted comments to the U.S. Department of State on its plan to collect additional information from U.S. visa applicants who are determined to warrant additional scrutiny from consular officials pursuant to undisclosed criteria.

Published: May 18, 2017

The Bren­nan Center, joined by 34 other civil and human rights organ­iz­a­tions, today submit­ted comments to the U.S. Depart­ment of State on its plan to collect addi­tional inform­a­tion from U.S. visa applic­ants who are determ­ined to warrant addi­tional scru­tiny from consu­lar offi­cials pursu­ant to undis­closed criteria. The proposed collec­tion imple­ments the pres­id­ent’s March 6, 2017 exec­ut­ive order banning travel from six predom­in­antly Muslim coun­tries, and would ask desig­nated applic­ants for inform­a­tion includ­ing their social media handles and 15 years of travel and employ­ment history.

As an initial matter, the State Depart­ment reques­ted emer­gency review for its proposal, which signi­fic­antly compresses the timeline for the public to submit comments. However, the Depart­ment has not provided an adequate justi­fic­a­tion for trig­ger­ing this exped­ited process.

In addi­tion, the Bren­nan Center believes that this proposed collec­tion is excess­ively burden­some and vague, is apt to chill speech, is discrim­in­at­ory against Muslims, and has no secur­ity bene­fit. While the State Depart­ment says that the proposed collec­tion of travel history is essen­tial to national secur­ity, it will be extremely diffi­cult to comply with, possibly dissuad­ing applic­ants from trying to obtain visas and penal­iz­ing applic­ants who are unable to provide compre­hens­ive inform­a­tion. The State Depart­ment’s collec­tion of social media handles is prob­lem­atic as well; commu­nic­a­tions and non-verbal inform­a­tion on social media is notori­ously diffi­cult to inter­pret, and both applic­ants and their U.S. contacts are likely to self-censor to avoid becom­ing targets of scru­tiny.

Lastly, this proposal arises in the context of polit­ical rhet­oric and a set of policies suggest­ing intent to target Muslims. The admin­is­tra­tion – stymied in its efforts to directly ban travel from six predom­in­antly Muslim coun­tries on consti­tu­tional grounds – may be trying to imple­ment the same policy through its vetting proced­ures.

The Bren­nan Center has previ­ously submit­ted comments to the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity regard­ing its plan to collect social media inform­a­tion from trav­el­ers seek­ing entry to the United States, and joined a coali­tion letter criti­ciz­ing DHS Secret­ary John Kelly’s proposal to collect social media pass­words from visit­ors to the coun­try.

See the Bren­nan Center’s comments here