Some Tattoos could derail Immigrants’ Green Cards


In recent years, immigration attorneys say, concern about foreign gangs entering the U.S. has prompted Washington to delay or deny green cards, or legal permanent residency, to some applicants with tattoos.


The tattoo checks have ensnared scores of immigrants—mostly from Latin America—even though they have no criminal conviction. The denials are based on a section of immigration law that justifies "inadmissibility" on national-security grounds, including possible affiliation with criminal organizations.

In the fiscal year ended September 2006, the State Department refused immigrant visas to only two people it had "reason to believe" sought to "solely, principally or incidentally" engage in organized crime. In fiscal 2010, the latest year available, the number had jumped to 82 people.

The presence of tattoos isn’t enough to deny an application, according to a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. She said "more attention has been paid to tattoos as indicators of a gang affiliation during the visa process" as law enforcement has better understood the relationship between "certain tattoos" and gangs. The department doesn’t comment on individual cases, she said.

Lawyers and criminologists say many tattoos causing trouble for immigrants symbolize gang membership but have been adopted by the wider public. One familiar design: a pair of theatrical masks, known as "Smile Now, Cry Later," which Mr. Villalobos has.


"If you are sporting a gang tattoo, it is reasonable for a consular officer to investigate if you have gang affiliations," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors curbing immigration to the U.S., adding, "Our government is competent to make these decisions."










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