Hongkongers, mainland Chinese likely to face stricter scrutiny to obtain US visas

Trump administration orders heightened screenings, citing national security concerns

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 11:44am

Hong Kong and mainland passport holders are likely to face greater scrutiny when travelling to the United States after the US State Department ordered tighter security checks for visas.

In line with the new US administration’s promise of “extreme vetting”, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instructed American embassies and consulates earlier this month to broadly increase visa screenings for entry into the US.

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In four diplomatic cables sent between March 10 and 17, Tillerson called for the development of criteria to identify “populations warranting increased security”. Language from the diplomatic memos, reported by Reuters, placed security concerns front and centre, saying in part: “All visa decisions are national security decisions.”

Last year, the United States issued roughly 10.4 million immigrant and non-immigrant visas.

Visa applications are required for most people travelling to the US, but embassies can deny one to any person suspected of being a security threat, conducting fraud, or who may plan on staying longer than permitted, according to The New York Times.

Tightened security may not apply to the 38 countries in the existing visa waiver programme with the US, but that does not include Hong Kong or mainland China.

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In anticipation of the labour-intensive requirements of increased screening, US embassies were urged in the diplomatic cables to restrict the number of visa interviews being processed daily, even if it “may cause interview appointment backlogs to rise”.

Kristin Haworth, spokeswoman for the US consulate for Hong Kong and Macau, declined to comment on the cables, saying they were internal communications and the consulate could not discuss them.

Beijing-based immigration lawyer Gary Chodorow said visa applicants should expect to face more security questions, delays in processing visa applications, and more visa denials. Chodorow said Tillerson’s call to establish risk criteria might lead to more consular requests for special security clearances known as security advisory opinions.

“We expect that SAOs will be requested in a higher percentage of cases,” he said. “Some SAOs will be requested based on how an applicant fits a profile, such as based on their hometown, profession, ethnicity, and/or religion.”

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Kent Cai, a mainland-based immigration consultant, said the US visa application process had become more difficult since Donald Trump became US president. “It was relatively easy during the [previous] administration but we have clearly felt the difference this year,” he said.

While Cai did not expect “extreme vetting” to pose much challenge for clients from Shanghai, Hangzhou or Ningbo, it could be more difficult for applicants from places such as Fujian province and northeastern China. More applicants from those areas overstayed their visas or provided fraudulent application materials, he said.

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Zheng Kaifeng, head of Guangzhou-based travel consultancy Zizhuyou123, saidhe doubted applicants with legitimate business or educational needs would be deterred by the extra ­vetting.

“We have been processing our clients’ applications as usual as of today,” he said. “I don’t think there will be much of an impact in the future either, as US visa applications are already notoriously tough for mainland Chinese.”