For years the Department of State has paid attention to the presence of tattoos on visa applicants, but recently they have become more strict on the issue.
Although tattoos are not a basis for denying an individual a visa, the Department of State takes the position that certain tattoos may indicate gang involvement. INA §212(a)(3)(A) provides an inadmissibility ground based on “reasonable ground to believe [the applicant] seeks to enter the United States to engage in . . . unlawful activity.”
The FBI provides annual training to consular officers in Ciudad Juarez regarding which tattoos potentially indicate gang-related affiliations. Ciudad Juarez officers look at a variety of factors for indications of gang membership, not just tattoos (e.g. shaved head or scars indicating bullet wounds or knife attack).
When a visa applicant applies for an immigrant visa at Ciudad Juarez, a medical exam is required. The panel physician will report all skin abnormalities (tattoos, scars, etc.) discovered during the exam. The visa applicant must remove all clothes during the exam. Blacklights are used to detect invisible tattoos and tattoos that have been removed or covered up by other tattoos. Doctors do not make a determination on the symbolism of the tattoos, but instead report any skin abnormalities in the Medical Report.
When the applicant attends the visa interview at the consulate, the officer will ask the applicant to explain the significance of any suspicious tattoos and scars. If the officer suspects gang involvement, he will report the case to the Visa Office for an advisory opinion, which could take several months (keep in mind that the visa applicant cannot return to the United States until the visa is approved).
If you are considering consular processing a visa at Ciudad Juarez or another consulate and you have tattoos, you should consult an immigration attorney to learn more about the potential delay or denial of the visa. Of course, only you know the true significance of your tattoo, but beware that anything that can be interpreted as gang-affiliated could result in substantial delays or even a denial. Remember – just because you have an I-601A waiver approval and no criminal record, you may still be denied based on INA §212(a)(3)(A).