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Immigration officials use tattoos to evaluate visa applications

Tattoos can be used to express affection, personal identity and group membership, among other things. But it is their ability to signal gang affiliation that is causing problems for immigrants seeking green cards. Applicants for lawful permanent residency are finding it increasingly difficult to convince State Department and immigration officials that their tattoos are nothing more than harmless ink instead of the markings associated with criminal organizations.

In recent years, the federal government has aimed to block the entrance of immigrant gang members into the U.S. One of the measures immigration officials use is whether the green card applicant has certain tattoos known to be prominent among various gangs and criminal organizations. While a State Department representative said that a tattoo alone is insufficient to turn down a visa applicant, some tattooed immigrants with no prior criminal history have had their applications rejected.

In some cases, rejection can mean that families are divided and one parent must raise the couple's children without the other's aid and income. For example, one immigrant traveled to Mexico to complete his green card application. But State Department officials denied his application and have prevented him from returning to his wife and children in the U.S. because he has tattoos that authorities consider to be indicators of gang membership.

The man, however, avers that he is not in a gang. A criminal background check from his home state of Colorado reveals no arrests. He has the tattoos simply because he thought they looked good. His fate is not unlike that of a number of other immigrants, whose visa applications have been denied seemingly on the basis of a few lines of ink.

One expert on gangs notices a problem with the government's approach to using tattoos as a potential marker of a person's criminal tendencies. Some supposedly gang-marking tattoos have been adopted by broader segments of the population. Many immigrants will therefore find their green card applications rejected despite their lack of gang membership.

Fighting a rejected application can be difficult and can require persistent effort. In some instances, legal action may be necessary. Some immigrants have already initiated legal proceedings in federal court to challenge the decision of immigration officials.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Tattoo Checks Trip Up Visas," Miriam Jordan, July 11, 2012.

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