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Trump quietly puts teeth into his ‘extreme vetting’ policy | © Getty Images

The Trump administration for months has been quietly beefing up “extreme vetting” procedures for people seeking visas to enter the United States. President Trump signed a little-noticed executive order last week that rescinded an Obama-era goal to speed up visa processing. The brief directive strikes part of a 2012 order signed by former President Obama that instructed the State Department to “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receipt of application.”

White House officials frame the decision as an effort to strengthen security. While the change could significantly extend wait times for people seeking to travel to the U.S., they say it doesn’t make sense to rush a visa process that could prevent a terrorist from entering the country.

“This is a very straightforward step that removes an arbitrary requirement and ensures the State Department has the needed discretion to make real-world security determinations,” said White House spokesman Michael Short. “The president expects careful, accurate vetting of visa applicants, not a rushed process to accommodate an arbitrary deadline.”

But the moves have prompted concern among business groups and immigration lawyers that foreign travelers might shy away from visiting the U.S. due to the new rules.

“Especially as we ramp up for summer travel, there will be an increase in demand for travel [visas],” said Patricia Rojas-Ungár, vice president of public affairs at the U.S. Travel Association.

“When you add backlogs, demand is impacted,” she added. “People have options for where they travel. Needless delays hurt the process and it hurts people’s interests.”

The administration’s end to the three-week rule on visa interviews was overshadowed by a more public court battle over Trump’s executive action temporarily banning travelers from six predominantly Muslim nations. The White House won a significant victory on the travel ban this week when the Supreme Court allowed much of Trump’s order to be put into place. 

Even as that high-profile fight played out, the administration was taking other actions that put teeth into Trump’s extreme vetting efforts. Last week’s executive order directs the Departments of State and Homeland Security to develop a new implementation plan for visa processing.

The State Department has instructed embassy and consular officials to toughen security screening of visa applicants by identifying “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and instituting mandatory social media checks of people who have been in territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq in Syria.

In a March diplomatic cable first reported by Reuters, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the number of visa interviews conducted by each consular official should be limited to a maximum of 120 per day. Tillerson acknowledged the new rule “may cause interview appointment backlogs to rise.”

An official with the State Department said that the latest executive order provides consular services with additional “flexibility” if they determine the need to perform additional security checks on visa applicants, but stressed that the department has always erred on the side of security.

“If applicants are taking more time if we’re doing more security checks, this will give us the time to do that,” the State Department official said. “We always take as much time as needed to make sure every potential traveler doesn’t present a security risk.”

Neither the State Department nor the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offered concrete details about the implementation plan for visa processing. Homeland Security referred questions to the State Department.

“Of course, we’re going to review everything carefully,” the State Department official said.

The new restrictions mostly do not apply to residents of more than three dozen countries — including almost all of Europe and other allies such as Japan and Australia — who can easily visit the U.S. under the visa waiver program. But they will affect people from more than 150 other nations.

Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary of policy at the DHS during the Bush administration, said Trump’s latest executive order will work in tandem with portions of the travel ban. The ban mandates a worldwide review of vetting procedures and also prevents consulates from waiving visa interviews for repeat applicants.

“[The order] is just one aspect of a much larger playbook now underway,” he said.

Even before the latest executive order, there was already evidence that visa issuances were dropping. As a result of an earlier Trump directive, the State Department is now required to publish monthly statistics on visa issuances. According to that data, the total count of nonimmigrant visas issued dropped from 907,166 in March to 735,004 in April.

“This is a direct result of the March 17 cable on heightened vetting,” said Liam Schwartz, an immigration and consular lawyer based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

If the visa process is further slowed, immigration lawyers anticipate cases where foreign students do not receive their visas on time for the beginning of college semesters in September. They also say delays could prevent foreign workers seeking H-1B visas from entering the country for their scheduled work.

Outside groups also believe Tillerson’s decision to keep a hiring freeze at the State Department has contributed to the drop in visas issued.

The White House says it needs to prioritize security, something Trump emphasized in his campaign.

“We understand those concerns, but at the same time, our job is to keep the country safe,” said Short, the White House spokesman. “Arbitrary timelines seldom serve national security interests.”

But the groups questioned that explanation, saying that consular officials do not even begin to review a visa application until after the interview is scheduled. If an officer needs to conduct additional security checks, it would typically occur on or after the day of an interview.  

The visa issuance process for foreign travelers has generated controversy ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — when all 19 hijackers entered the U.S. on temporary visas. The attacks led the State Department to prioritize security over issuing visas efficiently, experts say, resulting in longer waits for nonimmigrant visas and prompting frustrations among the business community and others.

The Obama EO was a sort of gentle nudge to the State Department” to speed up visa processing, said Edward Alden, an immigration expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “[The new administration has] gone back to the very hard ‘security trumps all’ position.”

–This piece was updated at 9:55 a.m.

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