Visa security kabuki

Lu had to go to Madrid for her interview on her application for a US visa. As it happened, this was on 9/11, and the embassy Stars and Stripes were at half-mast. Less impressively, the State Department continues the fight against the terrorist threat through searching questions on its visa form:

  • Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?                                YES/NO
  • Have you ever or do you intend to provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists or terrorist organizations?                            YES/NO
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization? YES/NO

I bet that scares off al-Baghdadi! Do they really hope to catch idiots like Reid answering “yes”? I’ve applied for visas from China and Russia, with paranoid and efficient secret police forces, and they didn’t waste my and their time with such questions. The North Koreans don’t ask if you have ever spat on a photo of Kim il Sung. Iran just asks if you are a journalist, have a criminal record or a contagious disease, and where else you have been (read Israel).

The kabuki extends wider than terrorism – but falls well short of a full catalogue of high-profile Dr. Evil crimes. State asks if you are a money launderer, but not a currency forger; a génocidaire or torturer, but not a rapist; a procurer of forced abortions, but not a paedophile; a drug smuggler, but not an illegal arms dealer; a prostitute, but not a political consultant mafioso.

What is the mental process behind this? Is it the Al Capone tactic, of getting the bad guy through a technical offence? I don’t see how this would work. Dr Evil lies on his DS-160, flies to New York, tries to plant sarin in the subway, and is arrested. The prosecutor assembles a list of charges adding up to 2,000 years in jail. Would she weaken the media impact by adding the misdemeanour “lying on his visa application”? A similar argument holds for deportation. The false declaration only stands up if Dr. Evil’s substantive misconduct in the USA justifies deportation, in which case the false-declaration charge adds nothing useful.

The only way I can think of to generate this absurd list is an accumulation of random grandstanding by congresspersons of limited understanding. “What, Mr Under-Secretary, is the State Department doing to stop the entry into this great, pure country of foreigners guilty of the disgusting crime of [insert offence lifted from recent mail from constituent]?”

Better suggestions welcome.



  1. KatjaRBC says


    Except for the question whether they seek to engage in terrorist activities, these questions are not nonsensical on their face. Think Gerry Adams, for example. Terrorism is more than just IS and Al Qaeda (not even considering the difficulty of precisely defining "terrorism") and these questions were there long before 9/11.

    I do not know whether it actually makes sense to ask them. My best guess is that they're being asked because they are like most other bureaucratic creations: somebody thought them up (probably in a hurry to get the form out the door), and nobody ever got around to removing or reworking any of them. And because they don't cause any actual harm, there's not much of an incentive to tidy up the visa application forms.

    Also, I have heard (anecdotally) that, yes, some people actually are naive enough to answer questions about whether they plan to engage in terrorist activity or to overthrow the US government honestly. It wouldn't really surprise me; mental health issues and being a terrorist/revolutionary are not mutually exclusive, after all.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanThe story of the famous poster is that the British government was seriously worried in 1939 about German bombing creating mass panic. The posters were prepared and printed, but since the panic did not materialize they were never used.

      Much later on, they became an icon of the (partly true) Blitz myth. They do say something about the British character, for instance in the response of Londoners to the 2005 bus bombings. The Menezes tragedy showed that sang-froid was not universal in the police.



    We used to protect America from the Red Menace in the McCarthy era the same way, with loyalty oaths for (for example) public school teachers and…wait for it…high school seniors as a condition of graduation.
    KatjaRBC, I think it is actually costly for government security practices to be an object of public ridicule. What's nonsensical is not to try to identify dangerous people, but to do it by asking them to make themselves known on a form. The Israelis are very good at this stuff, and AFAIK they think our airplane and border security procedures are amateurish and inept.

    • Keith_Humphreys says


      The State of California's loyalty oath was a great aid to Stanford because a number of brilliant UC Berkeley professors refused to take it, allowing us to recruit them here.

  3. Warren_Terra says


    The Material Support Of Terrorism laws are, according to what I've read, very expansive and poorly defined. So this may be a cue to get applicants to disclose to officials their affiliations that might otherwise later get them in trouble (have they ever donated to humanitarian relief through an organization some of whose officers might have questionable associations? Have they ever signed a petition sponsored by a group they didn't know much about?). Also, if they do decide to go after some schlub based on the Material Support laws, it's probably easier to prove someone "lied" about their affiliations than it is to prove their affiliations were genuinely problematic.

    • James Wimberley says


      If I ever gave money to Noraid under a misapprehension as to its goals, that’s not lying. The trouble with your scenario is still that the false statement by itself isn’t worth prosecuting. You still have to show that the organization is terroristic and that I knowingly aided it.

      What really happens, as everybody knows, is that the consulate checks my name against a database of supposed bad guys. If my name is on it, the visa is denied – they don’t have to give a reason. If my name is not in the database, I get the visa. The Dr. Evil questions have no operational function.

  4. J_Michael_Neal says


    My guess is that they're on there to facilitate deportation proceedings. If it turns out that someone on a visa is a member of on of these groups you can just point out that they lied on their visa application rather than needing to prove anything else.

  5. paulwallich says


    I'm going to go with a different tack: you know those losers who try to break into fast-food restaurants and end up getting stuck in an air vent and needing to be rescued by the fire department? Plenty to those in other countries too, and some of them want visas. So questions like this can serve two purposes at the same time: they can let prosecutors pile on the charges for visitors who do commit or credibly prepare to commit bad acts in the US, and they serve as a great first-level bozo filter.

  6. Herschel says


    American immigration official: Do you advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence?

    Little Lithuanian grandmother, after thinking a moment: Violence!

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