There has, inevitably, been a small amount of speculation around the blogosphere about my travel problems. On the one hand there are the people preaching doom and gloom about how the Evil TSA are Out To Get Us All. On the other there are people muttering darkly that I must have done something Very Bad. We do love our dramas. The reality is much less interesting and also far more complicated. I’m not sure that I understand it myself. But now that I’ve had a chance to decompress I’m going to try to explain what the problem is.
Entry into the USA is controlled by two different government departments: Customs & Border Patrol (CBP), who man the desks at airports, and the State Department, who run embassies and issue visas. These two organizations have different, and sometimes competing, aims.
The CBP generally dislikes the visa waiver scheme, because it means letting people into the country without any proper vetting. Their job is to protect the US from undesirables, and visa waiver makes that hard. State, on the other hand, is constantly besieged by people wanting visas. Anything that they can do to cut down the size of the queue is good, and from that point of view they love visa waiver.
An additional complication is that CBP and State have rather different views of what constitutes “business”. As far as the CBP is concerned, anything that isn’t obviously tourism is “business”. If you are attending a conference, or a board meeting, or doing anything for a charity or non-profit organization, that’s still business, and potentially suspicious. But State is concerned with the economic welfare of the USA, and will only grant a “business” visa if what you are doing obviously involves trade.
Then there is the question of visa categories. There are many of them, and they are all very tightly drawn, so if the purpose of your travel is anything out of the ordinary you may find it very difficult to find a category that fits you.
The final piece of the puzzle concerns the rules for visa waiver. There are certain things that prevent you from using the visa waiver system. Many of you will have had a good laugh at the questions about being convicted of genocide or being a Nazi. But it is also absolutely forbidden to use visa waiver if you have been denied an ordinary visa by State. Because, after all, if you were denied a visa then you must be a potential danger to the country.
So here’s the problem. In late 2008 the CBP says I travel back and fore too often for their comfort, and they want me to get a visa. I talk to a lawyer and in early 2009 I try to get a visa. State says that the sort of travel I am doing is exactly the sort of thing that visa waiver was designed for, and in any case I don’t fit into any of their neat visa categories so they can’t give me one. They tell me that I should carry on using visa waiver. So I follow their advice, and that appears to work. I am let in twice during 2009, once after a lengthy grilling that doesn’t once mention any visa application.
Then, last week, I get hauled in front of CBP officials. My records now say that I have been denied a visa and consequently a) I can’t use visa waiver and b) I have told a lie on that little green form you have to fill in on the aircraft. As far as I’m concerned I haven’t told any lies, I have done exactly what I was told by State. But proving that is likely to be a lengthy and very expensive process. And even if I do manage to clear my name, I have now actually been denied entry, and can no longer use visa waiver. And I can’t apply for a proper visa because there is no visa for the sort of things I do when visiting.
The net result is that I am totally screwed. As I’m sure you can see, much of this is due to the way in which the system is set up. Changing it, however, is an uphill struggle, and any attempt at reforming immigration laws is liable to get the froth-at-the-mouth brigade very excited. I’ve been talking to an immigration lawyer who campaigns for change in the system, and I hope that my story will provide her with useful ammunition. As far as I’m concerned, however, the only things that are likely to get me back into the US are a) if I become very rich, or b) if I manage to start making a living from the science fiction industry. The former requires a lottery win, and given that many of our top writers have to keep their day jobs because they can’t make a living out of writing novels, the latter is almost as unlikely.