Getting a visa or a green card in the United States is a stressful process, during which some people with tattoos run into problems. Tattoos alone are not the problem; it's what they can signal.
To enter the United States or to get a green card, you must be “admissible” to the United Status. U.S. immigration laws includes a long list of reasons that make people “inadmissible.” The list does not include tattoos directly.
But tattoos can be viewed as evidence of other activities that make a person inadmissible. If you look at Section 212, subsection (a)(3)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), you'll see that U.S. law makes you inadmissible if the immigration authorities have a “reason to believe” that you are coming to the United States to engage in “unlawful activity.”
Immigration officials have long interpreted “unlawful activity” to include membership in organized crime, like the Mafia or a gang. This is where tattoos come in. U.S. immigration authorities can, and sometimes do, use tattoos as evidence of gang membership. This then gives immigration “reason to believe” that you are coming to the United States to engage in “unlawful activity.”
Many tattoos are completely innocent, and immigration officials know this. If your tattoo is easy to understand and clearly not a gang sign, then you should not have troubles. Be ready to explain when you got the tattoo and why. And be ready to explain what it means.
If your tattoo is a name or an important date, try to find a document that explains the it. For example, if you have your daughter’s name and birthday, get a copy of your daughter’s birth certificate.
If you are concerned about your tattoo, you will need to do some research about gang tattoos. Make sure that your tattoo does not suggest gang membership.
For example, the number “13” is probably the worst tattoo to have, since it may suggest that you are a member of the notorious “MS-13” gang or it may represent the letter “M” as used by many Mexican gangs (‘M’ is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet). That will be a problem.
Other problematic symbols include letters associated with gang such as ‘EME’ (the Mexican mafia), ‘ALKN’ (the Almighty Latin Kings Nation); numbers 13, 14, 18, 88; three dots in a triangle formation (especially near the eyes or on the hand); clown face/mask; a three-leaf shamrock with a ‘6’ on each leaf; a crown (especially a 5-pointed crown); and words associated with gangs (such as ‘norte’ for the Norteño gang or ‘sur’ for the Sureño gang).
For more complete lists, the best route is to explore gang tattoo databases and lists. The Canadian government includes an easy-to-use (though a bit outdated) guide.
To get a nonimmigrant visa (a temporary one, like a tourist visa), the U.S. government may never learn about your tattoo.
But to get an immigrant visa or a green card, virtually all applicants must visit a physician for a medical exam. During the exam, the physician may ask you to remove your clothes, and will note any tattoos that you have.
The U.S. immigration physicians in Ciudad Juarez are notorious for this. Additionally, while physicians in the United States are bound by the privacy rules found in federal law (HIIPA), doctors outside of the United States are not. Local laws may limit what the physicians can and cannot say to the immigration authorities, but it’s always safest to assume that the physician will tell the immigration authorities everything.
Covering up an old tattoo might seem like a good idea at first, but it also carries risks. During the medical exam, some doctors have been known to use a black light to detect any tattoos that have been removed. This will inevitably lead to questions about why you had the tattoo and what it was.
A cover-up might seem like a better way to go, but even then, using the black light and based on a close inspection, the doctor might still be able to tell that you have gotten your tattoo covered up.
In short, removing or covering up a tattoo might not solve your problem at all. And if your tattoo is completely innocent, it might make things worse by giving the doctor a reason to suspect that your original tattoo was gang-related.
If you are concerned about your tattoo, consider asking an expert. There are a handful of professors and researchers who specialize in gang tattoos.
You might consider asking an expert to evaluate your tattoo to see whether it gives the impression of being gang-related.
Of course, if the expert says your tattoo is gang-related, then you have to make a difficult choice of whether to go forward with your immigration application. If the expert says that your tattoo is not gang-related, that will give you some peace of mind. Note, however, that the U.S. government is always free to disagree or disregard the expert opinion.