Contrary to popular belief, we do not issue visas to foreigners wishing to visit or to immigrate to the United States by dart board (that is, however, the way new officers get their assignments). There are a number of qualifications that a person must meet before he or she can be issued a visa, variouly dependent on the visa classification or nationality of the person applying. The list of visa ineligibilities, however, is legalistic fun that goes on for days. Here's a top-ten list of my favorite disqualifications. If you're curious, all of these citations and more can be found in the Immigration and Nationality Act, section 212 (a) and its subsections.
10. 212 (a) (1) (A) (iii), crazies. You may think your poo-flinging street performances and raucous singing of quotes from the Popol Vuh may count as legitimate, enlightening art that needs to be taken to New York's Times Square, but we disagree. Go away.
9. 212 (a) (5) (B), crappy doctors. If you graduated from a foreign medical school that hasn't been certified by the Department of Education and you want to practice medicine in the United States, you better speak English well and be able to pass our medical exams or someone's not going to get a visa and the job! I really would love to know what prompted this section to be enacted. I mean, something this specific can't have been created spontaneously. Was there a spate of lousy Bhutanese doctors in the 1960s or something?
8. 212 (a) (4) (A), public charge. You can't get a visa of any sort to the US if we think that you'll end up going on the dole as soon as you get here. Interestingly, if you prove to the consular officer's satisfaction that you will not need public assistance in the US but unexpectedly end up on the dole once you get here, it's not grounds for deportation - but it might make future attempts to get a visa a little more difficult.
7. 212 (a) (10) (A),polygamists. Only applicable to those seeking immigrant visas, so Mr. Mohammad Mohammad* from Saudi Arabia can bring over his whole passel of wives and kids to Disney World if he wants. Interestingly, this ineligibility is all about the intent: if the consular officer thinks the applicant will practice polygamy in the US even without multiple wedding ceremonies in the States or elsewhere, it's grounds for denial. Being a member of a group that permits polygamy (Islam) or advocating for polygamy (far-right Mormon splinter groups) is not grounds for denial.
6. 212 (a) (2) (G), those who are particularly oppressive of religious freedom. If you're an official from a foreign government listed in our Human Rights Report as being particularly oppressive of religious freedom, then you can't retire to Florida to carry out your oppression at a more leisurely pace. Once has to wonder how often these people actually do apply for immigrant visas.
5. 212 (a) (10) (E), former AmCits who renounced to avoid taxes. The first in our series of reactionary up-yours ineligibilities, these people think they're some clever little ducklings. They are the people who are fabulously wealthy and sick of paying US taxes while living outside the country. If they renounce their citizenship in order to dodge the tax bill and want to return to the US to visit family, they have to go through a long, drawn-out process of seeking a waiver from three different federal Departments. And if they realize they made a mistake, and want to regain US citizenship? Tough. They can never do it. Bonus fun - if the IRS determines that someone renounced citizenship for tax purposes, then that agency is legally capable of taxing them anyway for the next ten years just to stick it to them. I love it. That is what I call progressive taxation.
4. 212 (a) (8) (A) and 212 (a) (8) (B), draft dodgers. This is what you get if you renounced your citizenship in Canada after desertion or dodging your draft call-up. Like the tax dodgers, draft dodgers with a later change of heart can't regain citizenship, and non-citizen deserters need to jump through hoops if they want to come to the States to visit people later on.
3. 212 (a) (3) (D), Communists and other totalitarian party members. Were you a Party leader under Mao, Khruschev, Pol Pot, or any other similarly unappetizing leader? Do you now want to immigrate to the United States after discovering that your ideology might have a few structural inadequacies? Tough! Realistically, this is directed at party leaders, not the rank-and-file who needed to join parties to get a job or an education. With that being said, they still have to seek a waiver through a lengthy process. If we can't defeat the Commies with our overwhelming economic might and moral strength, we'll defeat them by stopping them from moving here!!
2. 212 (a) (3) (E), Nazis. The only party special enough to get its own section in the law, this is limited to those who took part in "Nazi persecutions, genocide, torture or extrajudicial killings" between 1933 and 1945. There doesn't appear to be a sunset clause on this section, although one can reasonably presume that it'll be fairly irrelevant in twenty years or so.
1. 212 (a) (2) (A) (i) (I), moral turpitude. Moral turpitude is the most glorious legalese term I've encountered so far within State, and it's getting a new brush with fame, since it's the reason why Scooter Libby was disbarred today in the District. No one seems to have nailed down a good, pithy definition of moral turp (as we affectionately call it), but the rule of thumb here appears to be that any crime involving an evil intent will disqualify you from a visa. Larceny, fraud, and intent to harm things and people are the most common elements. Basically, if you get drunk and accidentally run over your grandmother, you're a terrible person but not ineligible for a visa; if you back over her one morning and then drive forward again, you probably should be languishing away in some backwater jail and not applying for a visa. Moral turp is so amusing to me in large part by the woman who taught this module of consular training. She uttered the phrase like it was a prohibition handed down to Moses in the Sinai while lecturing us on the foibles of the INA and how many more restrictions we needed to have on immigration, and it didn't help that her accent made it even more hilarious. You know you've reached the height/depths of nerdery when all it takes to start you giggling is someone self-righteously saying "That's a crime of moral turp!" when you accidentally bump into them.
What's interesting is that we ban people from coming to the United States for things that American citizens can legally do here (join the communist party, for example) or for problems that are endemic in our own country (moral turp, having the crazy, poverty). What's more interesting is the list of visa ineligibilities that encompass illegal but ignored activities (polygamy, illegal presence in the States, etc). The different parts of this act, which was originally passed in the 1950s and which has been amended a number of times, really reflect the hot-button issues of their day.
*When we are playing with the consular systems and need a name that will return a lot of hits, many derogatory, Mohammad Mohammad is our standard example. I feel that he and I have become old friends by this point.