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 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 law enforcement and immigration records. [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]

Law enforcement agencies catalog gang tattoos. One example is the Canada Border Services Agency’s Tattoos and Their Meanings (2008).

One type of record that the State Department may rely on is a gang database kept by a U.S. law enforcement agency. Such databases help police analyze trends and prosecute cases. But activists claim these databases may include inaccurate information. For example, Luis Pedrote-Salinas claims he was arrested in Chicago in 2011 for having an unopened Bud Light beer can. The police wrote in the Chicago gang database that he admitted to being a member of the Latin Kings, which he denies. Although the criminal case was not prosecuted, the listing in the database prevented Pedrote-Salinas from qualifying for relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He is suing the Chicago Police Department, arguing that there should be an official process to get off the database. [e]

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. [f]

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

Removing a tattoo or covering it with another tattoo may not be a successful strategy, as the doctors performing medical examinations have been known to discern the original tattoo with UV light.

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] Odette Yousef, Activists: Gang Database Disproportionately Targets Young Men of Color, NPR (Jan. 27, 2018).

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

22 responses to “Got Tattoos? U.S. Visa Officers Want to Know”

  1. Julie Avatar

    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. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      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. Julia Salazar Avatar
    Julia Salazar

    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. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      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. Esme Avatar

    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…

    1. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      If the tattoo isn’t known to the consular officer as associated with a gang or organized crime syndicate, this should be no problem.

  4. Beatris Martinez Avatar
    Beatris Martinez

    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. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      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. Annisa cardoso Avatar
      Annisa cardoso

      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.

      1. Gary Chodorow Avatar

        Annisa: According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Gang Center, “The spiderweb … is used by street and prison gangs, but it is also popular with nongang members as a decorative tattoo. When the spiderweb is worn by gang members, it indicates that the individual has served or is currently serving time in prison and is “caught in the web” of the justice system. It can also mean that a gang member is caught in the web of the gang lifestyle. Some white supremacist gangs use the spiderweb to support racism.”

        So the spiderweb is an example of a tattoo that is ambiguous–it may or may not indicate gang affiliation. Your husband will want to prepare for his visa interview by thinking about how to honestly answer questions about why he got each tattoo and what each means. He can anticipate questions about whether he’s ever been in prison or been caught up in gang life.

        1. Annisa cardoso Avatar
          Annisa cardoso

          Thank you for this information. As mentioned, he has no gang affiliation or a criminal record. It’s just a tattoo he got cause he thought it looked cool.

  5. Minerva M Avatar
    Minerva M

    My husband has his appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez in a month. He has absolutely no criminal background, no arrest whatsoever. We are worried because he has tattoos on both arms. None of them are gang affiliated. He has his oldest daughter’s name, his mom’s name, roses and flowers, a koi fish and an Aztec warrior princess. These are simply an expression of art and not gang related. We are worried that the officer might mistake the tattoos as evidence of gang affiliations. What can we do? Should we research and print out information regarding the meaning of each of his tattoos and present it to the officer at the time of interview so they can see they’re not gang affiliated?

    1. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      Minerva: As mentioned above, 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. An applicant with no criminal record shouldn’t face problems. Still, you ask a good question about how to prepare for the interview. Your husband should be ready to explain why he got each tattoo and what it means.

  6. Celenia Gutierrez Avatar
    Celenia Gutierrez

    My husband’s visa has been denied because the Consulate suspects he belongs to a criminal organization. He has never been in any gang or had any criminal problem. But it seems like the denial was based at least in part on his Aztec pride tattoos like the Mexican shield. Is there a solution to his case or not? He has been away from the U.S. for almost 2 years already.

    1. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      Celenia: Your husband may want to consult with a lawyer about asking the Consulate the factual basis for denial, getting an FBI criminal history check, and filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI and the state police. This may lead to discovery of the factual basis for the denial. If that basis is weak, it may be possible to refute it.

  7. Alexandra Avatar

    My husband’s interview was in August. We just received a notification from the embassy through our senator, because the embassy was not telling us the reason why he was placed under administrative review. According to the notification, our file was passed to the Fraud Prevention Unit for further inspection of his tattoos. Scheduling appointments with the local task force that examines tattoos can add additional time. His tattoos are his name and nickname, our daughter’s name and our wedding anniversary date.

  8. Erica Fabian Avatar
    Erica Fabian

    Hi my husband had his appt today in the Guatemalan consulate. He was asked to return for a 2nd interview. There was no reason why. But the officer was really focused on his tattoo on his back he has the Guatemalan flag. He has a total of 7 tattoos but she more was focused on the flag. He is not gang affiliated.

  9. Thomas J. Avatar
    Thomas J.

    It’s good to know that a tattoo may be used as evidence as to whether an applicant for a visa is a security risk. My cousin is trying to immigrate from Ireland, and he has a few tattoos. I’ll share this information with him so that he can look into solutions for that tattoo of his.

  10. Fortune Stephen Avatar
    Fortune Stephen

    Please I’ve a tattoo of marijuana symbol on my arm could that stop me from getting my Visa..

    1. Gary Chodorow Avatar

      Sounds like it would be wise for you to consult with our firm or another experienced immigration attorney about whether the State Department may accuse you of being inadmissible on the basis of drug addiction or drug abuse.

  11. Julio Gonzales Avatar
    Julio Gonzales

    I have to go to my interview in Juarez Mexico and I have a tattoo of and Aztec sun and was wondering if they’ll classify that as gang related I got cause me and my wife wanted to get a tatto so she got a moon and I got the sun

  12. Mahendra Vardhan Avatar
    Mahendra Vardhan

    I having a tattoo of my name and the sun, which is my zodiac sign. I hope the government will realize it is not gang-related.

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