It is well known that a criminal record can cause problems for immigrants seeking visas or green cards. But in recent years, more and more visa applicants are being denied entry into the United States because of certain tattoos that U.S. consular officers believe are gang affiliated. While some argue that using tattoos to spot international gang members is a valid way of barring potentially dangerous people from entering the country, others argue that the practice violates First Amendment rights.
One man, Hector Villalobos, was living and working in the United States when he met his wife. As he went through the process of receiving permanent residency, though, he was detained in his native Mexico because of his body art. Officials said that some of his tattoos are common among Mexican gang members, such as one tattoo depicting a pair of theatrical masks. Villalobos, who has now not seen his wife and three children for seven months, works as a handyman and has no criminal record related to violence or gang activity. His wife claims that he has never been involved in a gang and simply likes tattoos. Some believe his situation may be similar to what many detained immigrants with tattoos face: He unwittingly chose symbols and images once affiliated with violent gangs that are now mainstream tattoo art.
The practice of refusing visas based on possible gang affiliation is gaining popularity. In 2006, two people were refused entry because of possible associations with organized crime. In 2010, 82 people were refused entry for the same reason.