Publication Date



[Excerpt] The conventional wisdom is that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, prompted a substantive change in U.S. immigration policy on visa issuances and the grounds for excluding foreign nationals from the United States. A series of laws enacted in the 1990s, however, may have done as much or more to set current U.S. visa policy and the legal grounds for exclusion. This report’s review of the legislative developments in visa policy over the past 20 years and analysis of the statistical trends in visa issuances and denials provide a nuanced study of U.S. visa policy and the grounds for exclusion.

Foreign nationals not already legally residing in the United States who wish to come to the United States generally must obtain a visa to be admitted. Those admitted on a permanent basis are known as immigrants or legal permanent residents (LPRs), while those admitted on a temporary basis are known as nonimmigrants (such as tourists, foreign students, diplomats, temporary agricultural workers, and exchange visitors). They must first meet a set of criteria specified in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that determine whether they are eligible for admission.

The burden of proof is on the foreign national to establish eligibility for a visa. Conversely, foreign nationals also must not be deemed inadmissible according to other specified grounds in §212(a) of the INA. These §212(a) inadmissibility criteria are health-related grounds; criminal history; security and terrorist concerns; public charge (e.g., indigence); seeking to work without proper labor certification; illegal entrants and immigration law violations; ineligible for citizenship; and aliens illegally present or previously removed.

The number of aliens excluded on the basis of §212(a) of the INA has fluctuated over the years. In FY2008, §212(a) exclusions of prospective nonimmigrants hit 35,403 and surpassed the prior high point of 34,750 in FY1998. For prospective LPRs, §212(a) exclusions peaked in FY1998 and FY1999, reaching over 89,000 in both years. The §212(a) exclusions of prospective LPRs fell from FY2000 through FY2003, then began climbing to reach 77,080 in FY2008.

Most LPR petitioners who were excluded on §212(a) grounds from FY1994 through FY2004 were rejected because the Department of State (DOS) determined that the aliens were inadmissible as likely public charges. By FY2004, the proportion of public charge exclusions had fallen but remained the top basis for denial. The lack of proper labor certification was another leading ground for exclusion from FY1994 through FY2004. By FY2008, however, illegal presence and previous orders of removal from the United States was the leading ground.

Exclusions of nonimmigrant petitions have a somewhat different pattern than that of immigrant petitions. Violations of immigration law were the leading category from FY1994 through FY2006, but fell to the second ranking by FY2008. Illegal presence and prior removal became the leading ground in FY2008. Over time, criminal activity has become a more common ground for refusal, and has represented a larger portion of exclusions among nonimmigrant petitioners than it was for immigrant petitioners.

Legislation aimed at comprehensive immigration reform may take a fresh look at the grounds for excluding foreign nationals enacted over the past two decades. Expanding the grounds for inadmissibility, conversely, might be part of the legislative agenda among those who support more restrictive immigration reform policies. More specifically, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly attempted to ignite an explosive device on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25, 2009, has heightened scrutiny of the visa process and grounds for exclusion. This report will be updated as warranted.


Suggested Citation
Wasem, R. E. (2010). Immigration visa issuances and grounds for exclusion: Policy and trends. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.