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Prince Harry visa case: Why is a US think-tank seeking the release of the Duke of Sussex’s application form?

Heritage Foundation accuses Department of Homeland Security of making exceptions for ‘celebrity elites’, citing royal’s recent drug use confessions, reports Joe Sommerlad

Thursday 15 June 2023 11:13 BST
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Prince Harry leaves the High Court in London after giving evidence
Prince Harry leaves the High Court in London after giving evidence (EPA)

Prince Harry has been giving evidence at the High Court in London this month as part of a landmark legal action against Mirror Group Newspapers, which he is suing for damages after alleging that journalists at its titles had resorted to underhand methods to secure stories about him and his family, including phone hacking, gaining information by deception and employing private investigators for unlawful activities.

“How much more blood will stain their typing fingers before someone can put a stop to this madness?” he wrote in his 55-page witness statement, accusing the tabloid media of bad practice.

But the Duke of Sussex, 38, is also currently the subject of a second court case underway on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has rejected a request by the conservative Heritage Foundation to expedite and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the think tank for the release of the immigration records of the Duke of Sussex.

DHS Senior Director Jimmy Wolfrey wrote in a letter that “To the extent records exist, this office does not find a public interest in disclosure sufficient to override the subject’s privacy interests,” according to the New York Post.

The Heritage Foundation argued that Prince Harry’s past admissions of drug use, such as in his memoir Spare, make him ineligible for a US visa.

DHS notified the think tank on Tuesday, one week after being ordered to respond to the request by DC federal court Judge Carl Nichols.

Heritage lawyer Samuel Dewer told the paper that the reply from DHS “shows an appalling lack of transparency by the Biden Administration”.

“The Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to stonewall the Heritage Foundation’s Freedom of Information request are unacceptable, and we will be contesting their position,” he added. “We expected to have to fight every step of this case in federal court and will continue to press for transparency and accountability for the American people.”

The director of the Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project, Mike Howell, submitted the request on 8 March, requesting records from DHS, Customs and Border Protection, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Office of Biometric Identity Management.

Ahead of the hearing on 6 June, only DHS had yet to respond. The other three agencies rejected the requests.

The Heritage Foundation’s request for a preliminary injunction was withdrawn as moot on 14 June following the reply from DHS.

“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any records relating to your request under Section 3, pursuant to FOIA Exemptions (b)(6) and (b)(7)(C). Exemption (b)(6) exempts from disclosure personnel or medical files and similar files the release of which would cause a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” DHS wrote, according to Inner City Press.

“The privacy interests of the individual in the records you have requested outweigh any minimal public interest in disclosure of the information. Exemption (b)(7)(C) excludes records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such materials could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” the agency added. “To the extent records exist, this office does not find a public interest in disclosure sufficient to override the subject’s privacy interests.”

Judge Nichols is now set to decide how to proceed with the case.

The think-tank insists the application is of “immense public interest” in light of the duke’s subsequent confessions of past illegal drug use as a teenager and as an adult, which he made in the Netflix series Harry & Meghan in his recent memoir Spare.

The duke wrote in Spare that he had taken cocaine but found it “wasn’t much fun, and it didn’t make me particularly happy, as it seemed to make everyone around me” and said of smoking cannabis while still a pupil at Eton, the prestigious Berkshire private school: “Marijuana is different, that actually really did help me.”

A US DS160 visa application form explicitly asks the applicant to answer truthfully to the questions, “Have you ever been a drug abuser or addict?” and, “Have you ever violated, or engaged in a conspiracy to violate, any law relating to controlled substances?”

Court artist sketches Prince Harry giving evidence in phone-hacking case

If the duke’s application were to be published and reveal that his answers contradicted his later public revelations about his dalliances with drugs, the case would call into question the Biden administration’s handling of the visa application process, the organisation contends.

In a statement ahead of DHS’s response, the Heritage Foundation said that it hopes to determine whether “celebrity elites” such as the Duke of Sussex were likely to receive preferential treatment and whether the DHS was operating “fairly – without fear or favour”.

Speaking to Sky News, its counsel Sam Dewey said: “The [US] government has taken the position that ‘there’s nothing to see here’.

“We’ve taken the position that no, if you look through all the details of his admissions, you look at the drug laws, you look at the laws on admissions, there’s a real serious question as to whether or not he should have been admitted.

“The alternative, if he didn’t disclose the drug use – then there’s a very serious question as to whether or not proceedings should have begun against him for that.”

The DHS previously said the think-tank had failed to demonstrate the necessity of releasing the document and questioned whether there was truly “widespread” public interest in the matter.

Prince Harry’s spokespeople have so far said they will not comment “at this time”.

The case opened in a federal court in Washington DC on Tuesday 6 June, with Judge Carl Nichols ruling that the Biden administration had one week to decide how it would handle the foundation’s FOIA request. That response, rejecting the request, came on Tuesday and was first reported the following day, 14 June.

Representing the US government, assistant US attorney John Bardo argued in court on 6 June that sufficient coverage from mainstream American media was required for a request to be expedited.

Mr Dewey countered that DHS regulations simply say “media” without specifying where the outlets are based, pointing out that news websites have a global audience online these days, no matter where their parent company might be situated.

“You can’t define mainstream,” he told The Independent on 6 June. “That’s almost absurd in this context. So as a policy matter, that is a very alarming statement for the press and for transparency for the administration.”

Legal experts predict that the judge is unlikely to side with the foundation’s argument because immigration documents contain a wealth of personal information about the applicant and so ordering the release of Prince Harry’s would set a potentially dangerous precedent.

Stacy Cozart Martin, an immigration lawyer and professor at Case Western Reserve University, told the BBC: “Those applications have a tonne of personal information on them. It would be very, very shocking, and I think a little frightening, if that were to be released to the public. Not only for him, but as a whole.”

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