By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of State has proposed tougher questioning of visa applicants who it believes warrant additional scrutiny, according to a government document published Thursday, in a push toward the "extreme vetting" sought by President Donald Trump.
The additional criteria would apply to 65,000 people per year or about 0.5 percent of visa applicants worldwide, the State Department estimated, though it did not target nationals of certain countries.
A set of new questions would apply to "immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities," the State Department said in a notice to the Federal Register.
Those applicants would be required to give social media handles and 15 years of biographical information when applying for a U.S. visa.
The proposed changes must undergo a public comment period before being approved or denied by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by May 18.
A State Department official said: "Collecting additional information from visa applicants whose circumstances suggest a need for further scrutiny will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity."
If granted, the new criteria would mark the first concrete step toward more stringent vetting Trump asked federal agencies to apply toward travelers from countries he deemed a threat to the United States in an executive order issued in January and again in March.
While parts of the travel order, including a temporary ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries, were halted by federal courts, the review of vetting procedures detailed in an accompanying memorandum remains in place.
Under the State Department's request, consular officers are to gather travel history, addresses and work history from "a subset of visa applicants worldwide" dating back 15 years.
They are also advised to collect all prior passport numbers as well as phone numbers, email addresses and social media handles going back five years.
Consular officers will not request user passwords for social media accounts, the document said.
Immigration lawyers and advocates say the request for 15 years of detailed biographical information, as well as the expectation that applicants remember all their social media handles, is likely to catch visa applicants who make innocent mistakes or do not remember all the information requested.
The State Department's proposal adds that applicants may be asked to provide additional travel dates if a consular officer determines they have been in an area which was "under the operational control of a terrorist organization".
Applicants may not necessarily be denied a visa if they fail to provide all the information if it is determined they can provide a "credible explanation", the notice said.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson first introduced similar measures in a March 15 cable to American consular officers that outlined questions officers should now ask in order to tighten vetting of U.S. visa applicants.
But Tillerson had to withdraw that guidance in a cable just days later, writing to officers worldwide that the Office of Management and Budget had not approved those specific questions. The OMB must review all agency rules.
(Link to proposal: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/05/04/2017-08975/notice)
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Julia Edwards Ainsley; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Bell)