Tattoos & Immigration
04:52 PM
Many thanks to all who sent me the link to this article, which was front page news in the Wall Street Journal: "Tattoo Checks Trip Up Visas." 

At issue here is concern over granting green cards or permanent citizenship to members of foreign gangs. The applications are denied on national-security grounds, but even those who do not have a criminal record could be flagged on the basis of gang-related tattoos. Here's more from the article:

The presence of tattoos isn't enough to deny an application, according to a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. She said "more attention has been paid to tattoos as indicators of a gang affiliation during the visa process" as law enforcement has better understood the relationship between "certain tattoos" and gangs. The department doesn't comment on individual cases, she said.
But what's a gang tattoo?

The article discusses the plight of two Mexican-born applicants for US residency, Hector Villalobos and Rolando Mora Huerta. Both were denied visas because of their tattoos. The article particularly cites the popular "Smile/Laugh Now, Cry Later" design, which US officials believe to be gang related. While the origins of the motif in Latino art are arguably rooted in prison culture, the symbol has come to mean more than criminality.

As I wrote in the introduction to Edgar Hoill's Latino Art Collection, the ethos behind the Payaso (or Payasa) centers on the belief that one cannot show weakness but should appear strong and happy in the face of adversity and later deal with troubles when alone. It is also said that the motif reflects the ideal of living life fully in the moment without regard to consequences and suffering them afterward. Some even believe that music may be behind the imagery, noting songs like "Smile now, cry later" by Sonny Ozuna.

You don't have to be a criminal to wear this tattoo. Indeed, both men deny any criminal affiliation.

Particularly in black & grey tattoo culture, some of the artwork may find its roots in gangs and prisons, but as a gang expert cited in the article states, a number of these tattoos have become part of "popular culture at large" over the last ten years.

US officials should not decide critical immigration decisions based on how they interpret tattoos and nothing more. What about swastika tattoos? Will all those "gentle swastika" proponents be barred from residency for being in a Neo-Nazi gang?

Perhaps it will take a lawsuit to clear up this issue.

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