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Safe And Secure: How The Government Screens Visiting Foreign Nationals

On New Years day I attended a local movie theater with my family and while in line to purchase the obligatory treats I received a phone call from a client who happened to have the first name of Osama. I answered the phone and greeted him by name and inquired as to how things were in Kuwait, I then realized that I had the attention of the entire theater. With every eye on me and every ear waiting for what Osama might have to say, I prudently excused myself and exited the theater for a little more privacy.

9/11 changed us.

It changed how we feel about airports, traveling and the evening news. It changed the way we look at each other, the way we interact and the feelings associated with people who look or dress differently. For the first time Americans felt vulnerable and threatened. This fear made us reexamine our immigration policies and the methods used to screen foreign nationals intending to visit or immigrate to our country. It brought immigration to the forefront of our collective conscience requiring our leaders to think in terms of national security. Friend or foe, Americans want to know who is coming to the U.S. and why.

Our government appears to share this concern as evidenced by the introduction of a complex series of security measures intended to identify and remove those individuals who may seek to harm this country. These new immigration procedures, many of which are controversial, were designed to enhance our ability to examine the threat potential of each visitor and to streamline visa processing. In a post 9/11 world security is everything and foreign nationals who wish to visit the United States can plan on the following security requirements.


When applying for a visa abroad or for an immigration benefit here in the U.S. applicants must submit to an initial security name check. The applicant's name is submitted by the U.S. Embassy or Immigration Service to be matched against similarly spelled names found in a labyrinth of databanks provided by such agencies as the CIA, FBI and NSA, U.S. State Department and Homeland Security. These databases include FBI's National Crime Information Center or NCIS with over eight million criminal records, the Consular Lookout and Support System or CLASS with more than 18 million names to watch and TIPOFF, which is a classified database of approximately 120,000 records and includes the names of suspected terrorists.

On each application consular officers and immigration officials check the appropriate databases for a match or a similar name that has been flagged as a possible or proven threat to the U.S. All of this information is constantly updated and available to each and every consular officer abroad and for immigration officials here at home. Congressional reaction to 9/11 mandated this unprecedented level of accessibility and cooperation in the form of the USA Patriot Act, Border Security Act and the Intelligence Reform Act.

The specific database used by the consular officer depends upon the type of visa. A visitor applying at an embassy or consulate will have his or her name processed through specific databases depending on the type of application submitted or purpose for the visit. Clearance through these checks is mandatory before a visa may be issued. There are three main types of checks known as:


Refers to a check done mostly off the information provided on the application for a visa and focuses on applicants with a potential terrorist connection. This usually means that they are from a Muslim dominated country. Processing of a visa can be held up by this check by as long as 90 days.


This check is designed to ensure that sensitive technology is not stolen or inappropriately shared with those who would use it to harm the United States. If the visa applicant might be involved with a "critical -field" technology in the U.S. which could have a dual-use such as military or national security application, this check will be done to screen out a high-risk applicant. This check may delay the applicant's visa approval by at least 30 days.


This name check procedure is done at the embassy or consulate by accessing the NCIC database at the FBI. This procedure screens visa applicants by name to see if there is a "hit" with the U.S. criminal database. If the search results in a "lookout hit" the application is subject to a more intensive security screening usually involving the submission of fingerprints, in person interrogation without counsel, and even a denial of the visa application.

There are numerous reasons a name check may prompt a "lookout hit" the more prominent being that the potential visitor has a past criminal record involving firearms, drugs, domestic violence, sexual crimes or more importantly, the applicant has known affiliation with terrorist groups. Equipped with this knowledge the embassy or consulate officers can deny the application based upon potential risk to public safety.

Inherent in the use of a name check database is that in some cultures many individuals share the same name or have name similarity. (E.g. Patel, Mohammad, Chan, Lee, etc.) This problem has resulted in some "false hits' where a visa applicants names matches a flagged name in the database but is not actually that same person. Recently this happened to a five-year old girl from Great Britain who shared the name of a famous terrorist and was refused entry even though she obviously posed not threat.

Where a name check results in a hit the consular officer will place an administrative hold on the case in order to further investigate the applicant. This process can add up to 6 months of delays while further databases are searched and the applicant interviewed.


Section 303 of the Border Security Act mandates the use of biometric identifiers prior to the issuance of a visa. A biometric identifier is an objective measurement of a physical characteristic, which may be captured and entered into a database. This identifier can be used to conduct background checks and confirm the identity of the visa applicant and to ensure that an applicant has not received a visa under a different name or that he has not been deported. The most common form of biometrics and required by all visa applicants is fingerprints.

The FBI fingerprint check provides information relating to criminal background within the United States and abroad. Generally, the FBI forwards the response to the Embassy or Immigration service within 24-48 hours. If there is a record match, the FBI forwards an electronic copy of the criminal history (RAP sheet) to the appropriate official. The Embassy or Immigration officials will review the record and determine what effect if any the record will have on eligibility to immigrate to the U.S.


This multi-agency central system is used domestically by the Immigration Service and is a prerequisite for any applicant in the U.S. for an immigration benefit. Prior to a final adjudication of an application for immigration benefits an officer must have an IBIS clearance showing that no derogatory information is available about the applicant from the various intelligence agencies.


Six weeks after the 9/11 attacks President Bush signed into law the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. These "tools" include, the use of electronic eavesdropping, foreign intelligence gathering and other forms of surveillance on individuals who have applied for or who will apply for visas to enter the United States.


Abuse of the immigration system by the 9/11 attackers has not been lost on those in position of authority and as a result foreign nationals who want to visit the U.S. must submit to multiple screening procedures at the appropriate U.S. Embassy or the Immigration Service prior to permission to enter or to remain is granted. These complicated procedures are inconvenient and often cause lengthy delays but are necessary for a country still shaken by the mere mention of the name Osama.

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