Who Is Barred From the U.S. as a Terrorist, Spy, or for Other Security Reasons

Spies need not apply! Any visa or green card applicant whose presence would potentially threaten U.S. safety or security is likely to be turned away.

By , J.D.

A record of having been involved in terrorism, presented a threat to U.S. security, or been affiliated with other anti-humanitarian beliefs or groups can destroy a person's eligibility for a U.S. visa or green card (lawful permanent residence)—in other words, make the person "inadmissible." This can be a huge problem even for people who aren't themselves guilty of terrorism or other violations, but are simply viewed as having some connection to groups that do.

No matter what the basis of your potential eligibility for entry or residence—whether you have signed up for a tour, received a job offer from a U.S. employer, married a U.S. citizen, or won the diversity visa lottery—it will be worthless if you are found "inadmissible" under U.S. immigration law. This article summarizes the grounds of inadmissibility related to terrorism and other security issues.

(A separate but related category of inadmissibility has to do with crimes, as described in Crimes That Make U.S. Visa or Green Card Applicants Inadmissible.)

A full list of the grounds of inadmissibility can be viewed at Section 212(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.). They also include issues such as communicable diseases, past immigration violations, and the likelihood of relying on need-based government assistance.

Inadmissibility Based on Association With Espionage or Sabotage

A noncitizen will be found inadmissible to the U.S. if it appears that his or her reason for attempting to enter is to engage in legal violations relating to espionage, sabotage, prohibited export of goods, technology, or sensitive information, any other unlawful activity, or to oppose, control, or overthrow the U.S. government by force, violence, or other unlawful means. In other words, spies and saboteurs will never be given a U.S. visa (if the U.S. government knows about their background or intentions).

Inadmissibility Based on Association With Terrorism

A noncitizen will be found inadmissible to the U.S. if he or she has virtually any sort of association with terrorism or a group that the U.S. considers terrorist, including if the person:

  • has engaged in or appear likely to engage in a terrorist activity after U.S. entry, according to the knowledge or reasonable belief of the U.S. government
  • has incited terrorist activity meant to cause death or serious bodily harm
  • represents a terrorist organization or a political, social, or other group that endorses or espouses terrorism
  • is a member of a terrorist organization (unless the person can prove that he or she didn't know and should not have reasonably known that it was a terrorist organization)
  • endorses or espouses terrorist activity or persuades other people to do so
  • supports a terrorist organization
  • has received military-type training from or on behalf of any terrorist organization, or is the spouse or child of someone who is inadmissible under this portion of the law, if the activity causing the main applicant to be inadmissible took place within the past five years. There's an exception for a spouse or child who did not know or should not reasonably have known of the terrorist activity or whom the U.S. government reasonably believes has renounced terrorist activity.

Check the statute for full definitions of terrorist activity, terrorist organization, and so on. In brief, terrorist activity is against the law where it was committed or would be unlawful in the U.S. and involves hijacking or sabotage; seizing, detaining, or threatening to kill or injure people in order to compel action by the governmental or some person; violent attacks upon an internationally protected persons; assassination; use of biological or chemical agents, nuclear weapons, or explosives, and so on.

This section of the law is so broad that it could sweep in people who are not actually terrorists. Let's say, for instance, that someone was forced to provide food to a local terrorist group as a condition for not torching their house. Would that person be inadmissible to the U.S.? It's quite possible.

In response, the U.S. government has said that it will make exceptions for people who were engaging in routine commercial or social transactions, providing humanitarian assistance, or were under substantial pressure, if such people can also satisfy a long list of criteria described in the Federal Register at FR Doc. 2014-02357.

Inadmissibility for Foreign Policy Reasons

If a noncitizen's entry to the U.S. would, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the U.S., that person will be found inadmissible and denied a visa or green card.

Exceptions may be made for foreign government officials or candidates for foreign office or anyone whose beliefs, statements, or associations would be lawful within the United States.

Inadmissibility Based on Membership in a Totalitarian Party

Noncitizens who are or have been members of or affiliated with the Communist or any other totalitarian party (including subdivisions or affiliated organizations), whether domestic or foreign, will be found inadmissible and denied a visa or green card.

Exceptions may be made if the person became a member of the party involuntarily or force of law, or when below the age of 16, or in order to get a job, food rations, or other life essentials.

Another exception applies if the applicant for a visa or immigration benefit can prove that he or she is not a threat to U.S. security and the membership or affiliation ended at least two years ago, or five years ago if the party in question controlled the government.

Close family members who pose no threat may also qualify for exceptions in the discretion of the U.S. Attorney General, for humanitarian purposes, to assure family unity, or when it is otherwise in the U.S. public interest.

Inadmissibility Based on Participation in Nazi Persecution

Noncitizens who, between March 23, 1933, and May 8, 1945, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in persecution based on race, religion, national origin, or political opinion under the direction of or in association with the Nazi German government (including occupied areas and allies), will be found inadmissible.

Inadmissibility Based on Commission of Torture or Extrajudicial Killings

Noncitizens who, outside the U.S., have committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the commission of torture or extrajudicial killing will be found inadmissible.

Inadmissibility Based on Recruitment or Use of Child Soldiers

Noncitizens who have recruited or used child soldiers are inadmissible. Note that the child soldiers themselves will not be found inadmissible based on their position, though they could fall under one of the other bases of inadmissibility listed above.

For more detailed information on these grounds of inadmissibility, or to figure out whether one of the exceptions might help you qualify for a U.S. visa or green card, consult an experienced immigration attorney.

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