Post 9/11 US immigration policies
Almost everyone in the United States remembers the tragic terrorist attack on 9/11 that killed more than 3,000 people.
This is also a memorable day for all of us as it marked the beginning of restrictive immigration policies.
Those involved in the 9/11 attacks entered the US on student and visitor visas. One of the hijackers had a student visa but never attended any American school.
The other hijackers had visitor visas and had requested for change of their status.
After 9/11, applying for student visa to the US became more difficult. The program Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) was adopted. International students and schools hosting foreign students were listed in a database available to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other law enforcement agencies.
With SEVIS, schools are required to give information such as enrollments, start of classes, failure to enroll, dropping subjects to below full course load, as well as early graduation.
As of December, ICE had some 8.1 million people recorded on its database. Most students who reported dropping their courses were either detained or deported.
ICE also took into custody those whose applications for student visas were denied but who remained in the US. This was what happened to Jonathan, a Filipino on a visitor visa who entered the US a few months after 9/11.
Jonathan, who applied to change his visa from visitor to student post 9/11, was detained as he was following up his application.
Jonathan never heard from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) after filing his application for a change of status. Unknown to him, his application was denied but, for some reason, he did not get the denial letter.
As soon as it was discovered his application was denied, his case was referred to ICE. He was detained for a few days until he decided to return voluntarily to the Philippines.
He is now back in the US after his spouse, a permanent resident, petitioned for him.
Extension of visitor visas
Prior to 9/11, a visitor visa holder was usually allowed to stay for six months. Before the end of that period, he/she may apply for another six-month extension. The CIS usually granted the request.
But after 9/11, extensions were no longer a matter of course. Applications had to be supported by substantial evidence of ties in the home country such as employment or primary residence or family to return to.
Other documents should also be provided, like bank accounts or tax returns, to prove financial support during the extended stay. Applying for extension was more like an application for a new visa.
Given the complexity and length of time involved in applying for extension or change of status, the applicant often returned to the Philippines without waiting for the CIS decision.
If the application was approved, the departure of the visa holder would not affect adversely his/her subsequent return.
But if the application was denied, the visa holder could face harsh consequences when he/she tried to re-enter.
Romy entered the US on a visitor visa and was allowed to stay for six months. Before the end of his six-month stay, he asked for an extension. But he failed to provide supporting documents and the application was denied.
Romy returned to the Philippines after his six months of initial stay expired. He attempted to re-enter after one year but was ordered back to the Philippines at the point of entry in a procedure known as “airport to airport.”
Romy did not expect to be sent back because he still had a valid visa. But the immigration inspector at the port of entry discovered that his earlier application for extension of stay was denied.
His brief detention at the San Francisco airport before he was sent back to the Philippines was a horrifying experience for him.
Innocent travelers affected
Post 9/11, several laws were passed on data sharing among agencies, tighter document security, accelerated implementation of foreign student visa policies, enhanced entry and tracking systems.
The terrorist attacks a decade ago drastically changed the immigration landscape. While the new laws were meant to protect the American public, unfortunately even innocent travelers of good intentions were affected.
Aside from visitor and student visa applications, employment-based visas were also affected. Interior security enforcement after 9/11 was enhanced with 387,242 non-citizens deported to their home countries. This represented a 134 percent increase over the 165,168 in 2002.
In the last decade, US immigration policies continued to evolve. While national security was the main reason for the changes, the recession after 2008 also affected policies.
A traveler or returning US resident can avoid being unnecessarily inconvenienced if he/she exercises diligence in determining the legal consequences of every application filed.
(Tancinco may be reached at email@example.com or at 887 7177 or 721 1963)