Got Tattoos? U.S. Visa Officers Want to Know

An immigrant visa applicant sporting a tattoo may be questioned about it. The presence of tattoos (or evidence of their removal) is noted during the required medical exam. This may lead a consular officer to suspect the applicant has gang affiliations or has abused drugs.

Some applicants say their visas have been improperly denied on the basis that they are “gang associates” who intend to enter the United States to engage in unlawful conduct. [a] Other applicants say their cases have been referred to the Visa Office, taking months or even years to clear. [b] The State Department’s position is that a tattoo may be one piece of evidence as to whether an applicant is a security risk but that refusals for security reasons are based on the totality of evidence, including the applicant’s criminal and immigration records. The State Department confirms that tattoos are a concern for applicants from a number of countries. [c]

It can be difficult to discern whether tattoos are gang identifiers. For example, Rolando Mora-Huerta was denied a visa based on evidence that he had once been stopped by police in a car driven by a man with a “Brown Pride” tattoo. The police suspected the driver of ties to the Sureno gang, who were known to have similar tattoos.  Mora was unsuccessful in arguing that the tattoo merely symbolizes pride in Latino heritage. [d]

In another scenario, some applicants say that consular officers have, upon seeing tattoos (for example, a tattoo of a marijuana leaf), referred them for psychological interviews to investigate drug abuse. In some cases, following such exams, visas have been denied, even for one-time marijuana use. [e]

Immigration lawyers may work with clients to document that tattoos are not gang related or that any gang affiliation has ended, and to prepare clients for related questions during the medical exam and consular interview.

Has your appreciation for body art impacted your visa application? Let us know in the comment section.

[a] AILA-U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Liaison Meeting Minutes, Dec. 10, 2013; AILA-U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Liaison Meeting Minutes, Apr. 27, 2012. The statute, INA 212(a)(3)(A)(ii), allows visa refusals if an officer has “reasonable grounds to believe” the applicant seeks to enter the U.S. to engage in unlawful activity. Such refusals require concurrence from the State Department.

[b] Davis, Tonello, et al., Update on the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez, Dec. 2012.

[c] AILA-U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Liaison Meeting Minutes, Aug. 21, 2012.

[d] Cardenas v. United States, 826 F.3d 1164 (9th Cir. 2016).

[e] Davis, Tonello, et al., Update on the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez, Dec. 2012.

9 Replies to “Got Tattoos? U.S. Visa Officers Want to Know”

  1. My husband has been in the USA over 20 yrs and is about to have his visa appointment. He has no criminal record or gang ties. But he has upper body, arms, back neck, hands, fingers tattoos. This includes devils & skulls. Scared that this may be a problem.

    1. Julie: Foreign Service Officers employed by the U.S. State Department adjudicate most visa applications. If they notice tattoos during the interview, or the physician has mentioned them in the medical report, then the key issue is whether they seem to signify tattoos of a particular gang (for example, the five-point crown of the Latin Kings). If so, your husband should be ready to explain why he got the particular tattoo and that he has no gang ties.

  2. I would like to leave my input here on tattoos. My husband and I applied for his visa back in 2012. At the time, we had 1 daughter and had been together 4 years. He had left at 18 to avoid bans for over staying. He had gone to school here since he was 6 years old and had absolutely no criminal record–not a speeding ticket, nothing. Everything went really smoothly for us up until the interview. He has tattoos that he had gotten in his younger days. At the time of interview, they gave him a paper that put him in administrative processing. After that, we received a denial notice of his visa due to suspicion of gang ties because of his tattoos. We had letters written from every tattoo artist that he received them from and got letters from his high school stating he was never gang affiliated, but he was still denied. We gave up hope for a while but are wanting to seek help on what we can do next.

    1. Julia: You may want to retain a lawyer who works often with the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez. The statute, INA 212(a)(3)(A)(ii), allows visa refusals if an officer finds (and the State Department concurs) that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” the applicant seeks to enter the U.S. to engage in unlawful activity. In these situations, the Consulate may–but is not required to–disclose the factual basis for the refusal, such as what about the tattoos made the officer suspect gang affiliation, and what other facts led to the visa denial. The lawyer may be able to help you get that information. And with that information, it may be easier to provide a rebuttal.

  3. Hi I just wanted to know … You see I have a tattoo but it’s totally innocent it’s a treble clef a music sign with a heart … And I was wondering if im in risk I’ve been stressing over it for a while now…

  4. My husband was denied a visa due to his tattoos. The officer thought he has some criminal affiliation. The thing is that my husband covered up 2 tattoos, including a spider web, before going to his interview. My husband has never been in a gang or involved in criminal activity. He’s been stopped only one time by the police, for driving without insurance and a driver license.

    1. Beatris: Sorry to hear that. Sounds like an officer may have made an erroneous decision that your husband poses a security risk. Panel physicians who conduct medical examinations for U.S. Consulate do have techniques to determine whether tattoos have been covered up or removed.

      You may want to talk with an immigration lawyer about seeking from USCIS a copy of your husband’s “A-file,” pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. The A-file is a permanent USCIS file the agency has created regarding your husband. It may contain information to help understand what the basis of the consular officer’s decision was. Your lawyer may also suggest that you do an FBI background check to get a “rap sheet” showing what the FBI believes to be your husband’s criminal history. Further, a lawyer could also follow up with the Consulate to ask about the factual basis underlying their decision. Once your lawyer knows more, it may be possible to rebut any derogatory evidence. There are also rare cases where filing a lawsuit can be of benefit.

    2. My husband has a spiderweb on his elbow. I hope it will not be a problem. He is not a gang member or anything like that. He just thought it was a cool tattoo at that time.

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