Barring Corrupt Officials from Entering the United States: A Guide to the Process

Since 2004 it has been American policy to deny entry into the United States of corrupt foreign officials and their immediate families. President George W.  Bush initiated the policy by presidential order, and in 2008 Congress added its voice, enacting legislation barring “foreign kleptocrats involved in the extraction of natural resources” from entering the United States.  Beginning in 2012, the Congressional ban was extended to include all those involved in “significant corruption,” and in 2014 the provision was expanded again to cover foreign officials involved in “a gross violation of human rights.” The following year Congress clarified that designations may be made publicly or privately.

The first public designation was made in 2018 (Albanian judge and prosecutor Adriatik Llalla), and since then more than 150 individuals from over 30 countries have been publicly barred from entry — either for corruption or human rights violations.  Although the State Department web site does not keep a running list of those who have been barred, the NGO Human Rights First does. A spreadsheet available on its website can be sorted by country, crime, date, and other fields and includes links to each State Department sanctions announcement. It is updated whenever new sanctions are announced

The Department encourage civil society activists, foreign diplomats, and others with information relevant to the designation process to contact it. The best way is through its personnel in the field as designations typically arise from recommendations made by U.S. embassy staff.

Two excellent descriptions and discussions of the visa denial policy by analysts at the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service are here and here.

The Human Right First spreadsheet, “U.S. Government Public Section 7031(c) Sanctions Designations to Date,” can be accessed here.

GAB contributor Daniel Binette’s recommendations for greater clarity in how visa denial decisions are made is here.

Visa Denial as an Anticorruption Tool: The Need for Clarity and Communication

This past April, the U.S. Department of State denied an entry visa to the Vice President of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostrum, a notorious warlord and a key regional leader in the broad kleptocratic network of corruption that dominates Afghanistan. (In response, and seeking to avoid an embarrassing public spectacle, the Afghan government cancelled the trip, citing ostensible “security” issues at home.) This is but one recent example of an emerging element of anticorruption strategy: the denial of visas to corrupt officials (along with those who have abused human rights). This strategy is attractive for officials like Dostrum, who are beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. and other nations’ anticorruption statutes. This sort of diplomatic tool is a subtle way of controlling and manipulating working relationships with corrupt officials, and can act as both a sanction and disincentive for corrupt behavior. High-level, publicized meetings and trips to Western countries enhance the status of leaders in developing countries. More broadly, visas for officials’ family members to study in the West are also highly prized in the developing world. Restricting these visas can thus be an effective way of deterring corrupt behavior in lieu of actual jurisdictional authority.

Using visa denials as a tool to fight corruption has received a fair amount of attention in recent years among NGOs and international groups like the G20 (see here, here and here), with discussion focusing on two broad concerns: fairness and effectiveness. In my view the fairness concern—the idea that denying an entry visa absent a formal conviction or fair trial violates basic notions of due process–is overblown. A ban on travel does not implicate the same due process concerns that would arise with, for example, freezing of assets held in a foreign country. States have broad discretion in immigration matters, and no foreign citizen has a pre-existing “right” to enter any country at will. And the due process concerns in the visa denial context could be assuaged fairly easily, for example by establishing procedures by which those denied visas are informed of reasons and offered the possibility to respond.

The more complicated issue is whether visa denials can be made more effective in deterring corrupt behavior. Here, the effectiveness of this promising tool depends on improvements in two areas: clarity and coordination.

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