Trump Administration Considers Far-Reaching Steps for ‘Extreme Vetting’
Foreigners entering U.S. could be forced to hand over phones, answer questions on ideology; changes could apply to allies like France and Germany
Foreigners who want to visit the U.S., even for a short trip, could be forced to disclose contacts on their mobile phones, social-media passwords and financial records, and to answer probing questions about their ideology, according to Trump administration officials conducting a review of vetting procedures.
The administration also wants to subject more visa applicants to intense security reviews and have embassies spend more time interviewing each applicant. The changes could apply to people from all over the world, including allies like France and Germany.
The measures—whose full scope haven’t yet been publicly discussed—would together represent the “extreme vetting” President Donald Trump has promised. The changes would be sure to generate significant controversy, both at home, from civil libertarians and others who see the questions as overly intrusive, and abroad, with experts warning that other nations could impose similar requirements on Americans seeking visas.
“If there is any doubt about a person’s intentions coming to the United States, they should have to overcome—really and truly prove to our satisfaction—that they are coming for legitimate reasons,” said Gene Hamilton, senior counselor to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
Administration officials say fighting terrorism is an urgent task that justifies tough rules. The review under way aims to replace what the Trump administration sees as a presumption toward letting people into the country toward a more skeptical outlook.
The review was called for in an executive order Mr. Trump signed last month banning travel from six-majority Muslim countries, which he said was needed to guard against terrorism. The order also directed security officials to implement a vetting program that allows for a “rigorous evaluation” of whether applicants support terrorism or present a risk of causing harm.
While much of the order was put on hold by a federal judge in Hawaii, the work to enhance vetting procedures was allowed to proceed.
Homeland Security officials say the agency is planning to significantly increase demands for information from all visa applicants, including visitors, refugees and others seeking to immigrate.
The changes might even apply to visitors from the 38 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program, which requires adherence to strict U.S. standards in data sharing, passport control and other factors, one senior official said. That includes some of the U.S.’s closest allies, such as the U.K., Japan and Australia.
The biggest change to U.S. policy would be asking applicants to hand over their telephones so officials could examine their stored contacts and perhaps other information. Visitors have had their phones examined at ports of entry, but that isn’t routinely requested during the application stage.
The goal is to “figure out who you are communicating with,” the senior DHS official said. “What you can get on the average person’s phone can be invaluable.”
A second change would ask applicants for their social-media handles and passwords so that officials could see information posted privately in addition to public posts. DHS has experimented with asking for people’s handles so they can read public posts, but not those restricted to friends.
“We want to say for instance, ‘What sites do you visit? And give us your passwords,’ so that we can see what they do on the internet,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said at a congressional hearing in February. “If they don’t want to give us that information then they don’t come.”
In response to Mr. Kelly’s hearing, a coalition of about 50 civil liberties and other groups issued a statement that month saying requiring passwords is “a direct assault on fundamental rights,” including freedom of expression. They also complained that the policy could be mirrored by foreign governments demanding passwords from Americans.
In addition, a DHS inspector general’s report this year found that the agency didn’t properly measure the effectiveness of pilot programs that used social media in visa-application reviews, making it hard to determine if they should be expanded.
Former DHS officials who worked on these issues during the Obama administration said that the information gleaned from telephones and social media could be helpful in assessing threats posed by applicants, but they said there are downsides, too. The effort—particularly the social-media hunt—would be time-consuming, they said, and it could drive people with bad intentions to change their practices.
“The real bad guys will get rid of their phones. They’ll show up with a clean phone,” said Leon Rodriguez, who headed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services until January and was deeply involved in refugee screening. “Over time, the utility of the exercise will diminish.”
Still, one Obama official said, telephone contacts could be particularly helpful in identifying terrorist ties, as their phone numbers could be run against various U.S. databases.
Already, the State Department has taken small steps toward tighter vetting, according to cables sent from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to embassies and consulates. In them, he orders officials to identify “applicant populations” that warrant additional scrutiny, according to documents posted by Reuters in March. The department hasn’t disputed their contents. He also directs offices to limit the number of interviews scheduled each day to ensure each application is properly scrutinized.
Mr. Tillerson instructed officials to ask visa applicants additional questions, such as listing all email addresses and social-media handles used in the past five years, as well as the applicant’s travel history, employers and addresses over the past 15 years. But after the federal court put the travel ban on hold, Mr. Tillerson said in another message that to be cautious, those instructions should be put on hold as well.
The administration is also working to implement an idea first raised by Mr. Trump as a presidential candidate last August for an “ideological test” for people coming to the U.S. Such tests have been used before—for instance, to screen out anarchists, or members of the Communist Party.
“Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into the country,” Mr. Trump said in an August speech.
The DHS official working on the review said the types of questions under consideration now include whether visa applicants believe in so-called honor killings, how they view the treatment of women in society, whether they value the “sanctity of human life” and who they view as a legitimate target in a military operation.
The goal, he said, isn’t to filter out people with contrary thoughts but people who might act on them.
That notion draws criticism from civil libertarians.
“It could deprive American citizens with the ability to interact and gain knowledge from the full spectrum of individuals and people who hold diverse beliefs world-wide,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security project.
“Our views and beliefs and opinions are protected,” he said. “Those same principles should drive our decisions about whether people would be permitted to visit the United States.”