The Hidden Process in Immigration


“There is a big market …. for tattoo removal because people who at one point got tattoos because it is fashionable or because it was a way to express themselves artistically are facing discrimination.”

Andrea Oñate-Madrazo

An article by attorney Gary Chodorow said, “the State Department’s position is that a tattoo may be one piece of evidence as to whether an applicant [for a United States visa] is a security risk.”

According to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “tattoos are revealed almost entirely through medical exam.” In these exams, physicians are supposed to take note of all marks on the body– including tattoos. If tattoos are mentioned on the medical notes, those wishing to come into the United States can be subject to follow up questions and another interview.

If a person does not pass the follow-up interviews through the inability to prove their tattoos are not gang affiliated, they can be filtered out of the Green Card Process.

Kevin C. Gregg, a central coast immigration attorney, said “tattoos are generally only an issue at the consulates in Mexico and Central America. It rarely comes up otherwise.”

But in Assistant Professor of History at Cal Poly Dr. Andrea Oñate-Madrazo’s two-year green card process, tattoos never came up.

“I don’t know if it would make a difference if I had a visible tattoo on my face or a visible tattoo on my hands or arms, but that [tattoos] was never a question,” Oñate-Madrazo said.

According to Gregg, “It is very rare that it [tattoos act as an inhibitor to immigration] happens, but it is a big deal to the person when it does happen because it means they are permanently ineligible to enter the United States. There is no appeal or pardon to overcome it.”

Even though Mexican immigrants are regularly subject to tattoo screening initiatives in the United States green card process, “they [tattoos] are less prevalent [in Mexico] than they are in a place like San Luis Obispo, where I’m surprised that when I go to yoga I think I might be the only person that doesn’t have a tattoo,” said Oñate-Madrazo, who was born in Mexico City, Mexico.

Oñate-Madrazo continued, “ If you are at big, cosmopolitan cities like Mexico City… there isn’t that much of a stigma attached to them[tattoos]” but “when you get to parts of Latin America where there is a strong gang presence, particularly in places like El Salvador and Guatemala, there is a lot of stigma,” because gang members are heavily tattooed.

Due to potential discrimination, “There is a big market in places like San Salvador and Guatemala City for tattoo removal because people who at one point got tattoos because it is fashionable or because it was a way to express themselves artistically are facing discrimination,” Oñate-Madrazo said.

Tattoo removal can be subject to questioning after a visa medical examination.

Currently, tattoos are not the only thing making the green card process more difficult for immigrants. President Donald Trump has added new steps to attain a visa. These include:

  • Increasing the number of interviews an applicant has to undergo
  • Adding additional questionnaires about travel and employment histories
  • And placing denied applicants who are unlawfully in the country in removal proceedings

As someone who received their Green Card a few months prior, Oñate-Madrazo said,“It’s mostly just a peace of mind, feeling like I am legitimate, permanent resident in the country where I have lived and paid taxes for most of my life,” in regards to her grueling documentation process while the United States is under a conservative administration.  

An introduction to Andrea Oñate-Madrazo and her education story.

The long process seems to have paid off in Oñate-Madrazo’s teachings. Lauren Cartwright, a second-year Pre-Veterinary Medicine Major and a student in Oñate-Madrazo’s HIST 216: Comparative Social Movements course, said, “I got the sense she was a well-traveled person, who has seen a lot of the world. This is reflected in her lecture-based class.” Cartwright goes on to explain the fluency of the lectures Oñate-Madrazo presents alongside minimalistic power-points.

At Cal Poly, Oñate-Madrazo also teaches:

  • History 223: World History 1800-present
  • History 338: Modern Latin America
  • History 442: Subversion in Latin America
  • And History 510: Grad Seminar: History of Human Rights

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