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Some green card applications denied because of tattoos

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Immigrants in Maryland can face a number of challenges in their attempt to gain U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent residency. Paperwork, long delays and bureaucratic requirements can try the patience of even the calmest person. But now immigrants seeking a green card can be held up for something typically viewed as commonplace and innocuous: tattoos.

According to State Department data from 2006 to 2010, the agency is denying immigrant visas to an increasing number of applicants with body art. The concern is that some tattoos may indicate membership in a gang. Certain designs, which the government has determined are associated with particular gangs, may result in the State Department's refusal to issue a green card under the rationale that gang-affiliated individuals could pose a threat to national security.

While the tattoo criterion may be preventing some gang members from being allowed into the U.S., it is also denying entry to a significant number of law-abiding people. A number of immigrants say that their green card applications were turned down merely because they had tattoos. They deny being in a gang and have the clean criminal records to back it up.

This raises the issue of whether the tattoo criterion is overinclusive, tripping up immigrants it was not meant to affect. Immigration officials are tasked with interpreting whether a tattoo is evidence of membership in a gang, but interpretation can be subjective and open to error. Compounding the problem is the migration of gang tattoos to the wider public. It is reported that certain designs that were held almost exclusively by gang members have now become popular tattoo choices among non-gang members, potentially leading to confusion when authorities address a tattooed immigrant's green card application.

In cases where immigration officials determine that a tattoo is evidence of gang membership, immigrants can experience significant delays in coming to the U.S. Repeated appeals to reconsider a person's application have been rejected. In response, some immigrants have filed or are weighing whether to file a lawsuit to challenge the denial of their green card applications.

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

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