Bad Tattoos Can Bar Immigration Benefits for Life

Written by Carmen Cornejo

Immigrants are held to a higher standard in so many aspects of life. Tattoos may be seen as an acceptable right of expression for citizens, but for some immigrants, ink may mean the end of their American dreams. 

The media has reported cases of individuals being denied immigration processes forever because their tattoos were seen as evidence of possible links to gangs and/or organized crime. The Wall Street Journal described the case of Hector Villalobos, who was waiting for a visa as part of his application for permanent residency and found himself stranded in Mexico, his visa denied. The reason? Hector’s tattoos are classified as a sign of allegiance to violent Mexican gangs.

Villalobos denied any association with gangs at that time or in his past and viewed his tattoos simply as a “cool,” fashionable thing to do.

Usually, individuals affected by this policy do not have criminal convictions, just a preference for certain types of tattoo art.

Many people ignore the fact that tattoos have meanings in the organized crime world. The images may indicate gang membership or represent skills, specialties, accomplishments, incarceration history and other behaviors.

Some tattoos are obviously questionable, such as swastikas or daggers. But many people may not know that a Madonna and baby Jesus tattoo indicates that a person is “clean before his friends” – he will never betray them to authorities.

You can read about some of the most recognized criminal-related tattoos and their meanings here.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of people denied visas and immigration benefits due to possible ties with gangs, using tattoos as evidence. In 2006, two tattooed people were denied a visa, while 82 were denied this process in 2010.

Immigration authorities assure applicants that the sole presence of certain tattoos is not a basis for finding them inadmissible. Other factors are considered in the process, including the applicant’s statements under oath during the interviews and the applicant’s personal, criminal and immigration history.