Trying to Make Sense of It All

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.

51 thoughts on “Trying to Make Sense of It All

  1. I understand completely, having navigated the system to get a media visa as a freelancer. It’s not easy if you’re just outside the boxes that the system expects you to be in.

    Bureaucracies. Sometimes they make you want to be a libertarian, despite your liberal nature…

  2. Cheryl,

    Thank you for sharing details of your personal life. Must be very hard to talk about this.

    When Peter Watts got stomped by US border guards in Michigan in December, he raised enough money in a couple of days to more than pay for any legal fees he would have. He didn’t even organize it, it happened while he was still recovering from the incident.

    You’re not in exactly the same situation, but I suspect you have a lot of friends and acquaintances who’d be willing to chip in small amounts, and that can add up. Fandom does this.

    I donated money to Peter Watts’s legal defense fund and to the supply fund for Ann Totusek’s medical mission to Haiti. I posted an online ballot for the Canadian Unity Fan Fund to make it easier for people to vote and, more importantly, donate online. I told folks on the Canadian Conrunners mailing list that there was no reason any fannish group should have a problem getting money online, and if anybody on that list needed technical assistance I’d be happy to help.

    Not like we’re close friends, but this whole situation of peaceful travellers being harassed by US border guards both offends and worries me. That’s not the country my American ancestors built and fought to defend. You may need help organizing things and your lawyer and/or close friends can help you with that. But you can put me down for sympathy, encouragement, technical assistance if you need it, and a bit of cash if you do decide to fundraise to help with your legal issues. Take care.

  3. I know very little about US visas, and I know bureaucracy is a brick wall. But. It sounds like getting a visa wouldn’t be completely impossible, just hard work? And would a tourist visa be completely out of the question?

    (I’m thinking about countries that don’t have visa waiver programs, i.e. most countries. There must be ways for people from those countries to visit the US for conferences and things?)

    1. Tourist visas are one-shots. You have to re-apply each time you enter. That would be very expensive and time-consuming.

  4. Your generosity is noted, folks, But right now my discussions with lawyers have not got to the point where I have any idea whether there is any point fighting this, let alone how much it will cost. As and when a real effort looks likely I will let you know.

      1. I don’t suppose they need a senior executive transfered….

        Although the L visas create a separate block of complication in my experience. The benefit of finding a way to get an L1A is they’re a good fast track to a Green Card, which is handy, providing you keep your taxes up to date…

        Sorry Karol hasn’t been able to help 🙁

        1. I don’t think Clarkeworld rates as the sort of company that has senior executives.

          Karol hasn’t given up, but she hasn’t had much time to digest the issue and I don’t have any money to chase what is probably a hopeless cause.

  5. Ok, don’t know if that helps at all, but as someone who comes from a country without a visa waiver prgrm for the US, I have a permanent tourist visa. I have to renew it once every 10 years, and that’s it. In between I can visit the US as many times as I want (usually, in my case, twice a year: Worldcon and WFC). I never had any grilling at any airport and I usually just say that I come for a vacation (which is completely true: I always take more relexed time after cons) and that’s it. So my point is (if applicable at all to your situation) is that you have to file for a tourist visa, and that’s all. That way you’ll fit into their categories, and what you do once inside the country is your business.

    + I’m begingning to think that the fact we don’t have a visa waiver in Israel is actually a big plus, not a disadvantage. Many local politicians try to put Israel on the Visa waiver programe, and now I’m hoping they’ll fail.

    1. But UK citizens are eligible for visa waiver so I can’t apply for one of those. Please believe me, I have been though all of this with immigration lawyers. There is nothing you folks can suggest that has not been tried.

  6. OUCH. Yes, I understand the nightmare. On the green form it does say that you may be able to get into the country even if you answer yes to one of those questions, but of course theory and reality might be very different in this case, innit?
    I hope your lawyers find a way through this mess, any way.

  7. Thank you for explaining this. I figured it was some kind of stupid technicality but had no idea how silly. I wish you the best, although I can’t do anything. If there ever is a legal aid fund for you for some strange reason though, I’ll be onboard to donate. Nobody should be put through this. And I consider it an education in how to deal with similar circumstances should they arise for me . . .

  8. I’m sure you’ve thought of it and all that, but in addition to sympathy I can’t help but try to help. No need to respond, I just need to get it off my chest (may not help you, but it helps me by letting me pretend I’m helping).

    Would working even on the Clarkesworld scale for a publisher in the UK work? Can becoming a publisher help (periodical or otherwise)? Becoming a “convention consultant” – and doing lots of pro-bono work? You mention having to earn your living from SF, but how much of your living?

    And I KNOW this is a dumb question, but based on a couple minute reading the U.S. Embassy (London) website, it sounds like a B-1 visa can be granted for charitable volunteer work here in the U.S. and is free or not expensive. It doesn’t work to get invited as a volunteer convention consultant and marketer by a 501-c-3 convention or whatever?

    Dunno. Just trying to not feel so helpless. Gude Luc in all things.

    1. Work for a UK company in SF&F is what I need, but I suspect it would need to be full time. Pretty much the only way I’ll get that is to start my own magazine or publishing house.

      Regardless of what it might say on the web site, I was told by the London embassy that B1 visas would not be granted for unpaid work.

      1. They don’t follow their own regulations? Typical Americans.

        Good thoughts on the cottage.

  9. OMG what a moronic catch-22. Gah, sometimes I really want to give my own country a swift ass-kicking…at lest, certain agencies.

    I know I’m biased since (a) my dad worked for State (not that part), and (b) we’re efriends, but reading this, I started thinking “stupid CBP, overstepping their bounds.” Gah but I understand now what you were saying before re. interagency communication being a major problem in your situation. And State is obviously not blameless. I mean, why some idiot in State felt it necessary to mark “…and we thus didn’t give her a visa [since we told her she didn’t need one].” (eyeroll)

    Sigh. Sorry to ramble (and hope I haven’t misinterpreted too wildly)–just quite ticked off and frustrated for you.

  10. Does this also prevent you transiting the USA? If so, hopefully this won’t have too much additional impact, I assume you weren’t planning on going to Latin America much?
    Has this definitely prevented you going to WorldCon?

    Best wishes

    1. United have told me that I cannot transit the US without a visa. There is a transit visa you can get, but that’s more expense and trouble when traveling. So basically I no longer fly with airlines that transit the US.

  11. Hi, Cheryl,
    Sympathy and hugs are probably all I can do, but if there is anything practical you think I can do, just name it.

  12. Karen said:

    “This means no Worldcons or WFCs that are in the US!

    And that’s just plain crazy.”

    THAT’S a rather interesting question, isn’t it? Why should it be just plain crazy? Just a few years ago, we’ve had a Worldcon in Japan. And sometimes we have Worldcons in Scotland (I’ve been to one once, it was great) and Australia (hey, it’ll be this year! 🙂

    I know I’m not on the same page here, but Cheryl has already told us there is not much we can do right now (though we are here for you, Cheryl, just call us when you need), so I thought it was worth to stress out the comment above. Why shouldn’t we do more Worldcons outside the US? Why shouldn’t we do a WFC outside the US? It’s just plain crazy not to, IMHO. (Please refer to the infamous Norman Spinrad discussion of last week and you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

    1. That’s a long term project. Certainly there will be Worldcons outside of the US. The UK 2014 bid will launch officially at Eastercon. But 2011 is in Reno, Chicago is officially unopposed for 2012, and no other bid has come forward to challenge San Antonio for 2013.

      As for World Fantasy, there’s nothing that can be done about that. The last two groups of people who tried to bid to hold it outside of North America gave up because the WF Board treated them so shabbily.

      1. Good Grief Cheryl! Beyond your personal situation – which continues to appall me with a sense of my own uselessness to provide help – You said ..

        ” Certainly there will be Worldcons outside of the US. The UK 2014 bid will launch officially at Eastercon. ” Really Cheryl?

        I just hope that this con com of ” The UK 2014 bid will launch officially at Eastercon. ” will have taken into consideration just how much time, attention and MONEY they will need to devote to Security at a World Class Event that WILL attract LOTS of American attendees and Loads of Media Attention at a time when the more obvious, London Based, terrorist targets will be throughly covered and the Next Up the desirable to Terrorists targets list …

        and Glasgow or Birmingham or London .. where-ever. A modest political conference in Newcastle Upon Tyne a few years ago involved .. well, LOOK here …

        ” Northumbria Police will spend £2.8m on security measures for the Labour Party’s spring conference at The Sage Gateshead.

        Some 1,000 officers will be involved in policing the event, including armed officers who will surround the conference centre.

        Around £300,000 has been spent on improving CCTV on the Gateshead and Newcastle quaysides as well as £150,000 on police radio communications inside The Sage.

        All leave has been cancelled for the three-day event and some officers will be working 14-hour shifts. ”

        Now of course that was Political Conference, albeit a small one by American standards, but we are down the road from that and then and a British Worldcon will involve having Hundreds of potentially High Profile Americans – that are involved in areas that Islamic-terrorists just love to hate and who may well be may well be feminists too – visiting the Homeland of Americas Most Potent and Willing military Ally in one of it’s major cities to gather together in one Spot that they might celebrate westen values in a democratic fashion … What a SOFT Target ! How much is this U.K. Worldcon prepared to spend on Security? They will need to be bloody persuasive to pull in any significantly expensive coverage from the local police and security services in the midst of a major recession!

        And then there’s the Insurance coverage that the UK Worldcon will need ! Litigious creatures these visiting Americans … who are of High Net Worth as these things go or how could they afford to come here? I don’t like to think of what Insurance will cost the UK worldcon these days.

        The prospective UK Worldcon Convention Committee had better be prepared to answer some very awkward questions … beyond the usual measure of awkward questions along the lines of how would you deal with a microphone that fails in the course of a panel and how much are the local transport fares / will there be mushrooms for breakfast variety that is.

        There is Absolutely NO personal hostility on my part to such a UK Worldcon bid but we had better appreciate that we are living in a different kind of world these days to the Good Old Days of, say, Seacon ’79 in Brighton and we must be prepared to act accordingly.

        I’m sorry to have to rain on anyones parade but this is the Real World in the 21st Century.. it still gives me the cold horrors of just how vulnerable the last Worldcon in Glasgow was to a simple truck bomb of the Oklahoma Bombing variety …

        Its not going to be in Glasgow is it ? ..

        Which Could have been designed to be a Target the last time that I saw it … but the Scots must have Really Beefed up the Defenses since several years ago eh wot? Well up to the Newcastle Upon Tyne political conference level ?

        Brighton’s been improved quite a lot of course and London IS, well, LONDON and so thats all right then Eh? Though they will still need high levels of security and that will be very expensive especially in London. And then there’s insurance … for any insurance company is surely going to be asking awkwardly professional questions these days aren’t they?

        No-one could be daft enough to want to run it Glasgow could they? … Oklahoma_City_bombing/ Armadillo Center / necessary security perimeter beyond the Armadillo … Money for same?

        God What a TARGET …

        I do wish a UK Worldcon Bidding committee well but I do hope that they are being realistic and budgeting to the real world rather than to some happy fantasy of the world as it should be.

          1. It does look like a drive-by, doesn’t it.


            Islamic terrorist attack?

            We shouldn’t expect it to be another bunch of incompents, but isn’t it a bit naive to try to bring religious war to Glasgow? Where are they going to get the football team?

          2. I believe the last person to try a terrorist attack in Glasgow ended up singing several octaves higher.

        1. I’m sorry ? What planet are you from ? or do you just feel that the only safe place on the planet is the usa …

          sigh … save us from paranoid crazies that make the terrorists job so much easier … You live in fear – we dont.

  13. Thanks for filling in the details, Cheryl. Your predicament is deeply frustrating, but I remain hopeful that you can persuade someone at State that they have steered you into this cul-de-sac with their own regulations.

      1. Some days I wonder if State really would prefer that potential visitors stay home. (For evidence, I present the 0900 number they want you to call to make an appointment. It’s like Ryanair, but Michael O’Leary is more likely to acknowledge that he’s a jerk.)

        1. I don’t know about State, but I’m pretty sure that CBP wishes that nobody would ever leave or enter the USA. It would be much easier to “secure the borders” if nobody every wanted to cross them. People actually wanting to enter or leave are a nuisance, especially if there appears to be a law allowing it. But CBP certainly seem to be a Law Unto Themselves, as the fiasco with Peter Watts shows.

  14. You have/had a residence in the US? Might it be worthwhile to contact the US Senator and Representitive for that location? Even though you are a non-US citizen, they may be able to help.

    Good luck in this nightmare!

  15. Having recently been in one of my periodic retreats from life, the universe, and the internet, I was not aware of this situation until Lise Eisenberg called me from Seattle the weekend after Potlatch and told me about it. Obviously, I completely agree with all the sympathetic and outraged comments above.

    Cheryl, while I’m sure you absolutely have explored all the options available to you, I figured there couldn’t be any harm in getting one more expert opinion, so I have brought your situation to the attention of a fannish and professional friend, now retired from the Foreign Service, who has worked at our embassy in London. Perhaps he will be able to offer some glimmer of hope.

    Meanwhile, I hope you can console yourself that there are worse places to be stuck than England and have a good time at Eastercon.

    Don’t give up!

    1. Moshe: Thanks! That is just the sort of person who might be able to help. However, past experience suggests that such people don’t want to get involved, and I would not hold it against your friend if he takes the same view.

  16. Cheryl, if you mail me, I have a friend who’s an Immigration lawyer in the states, who’s funnily enough flying over to the UK in the next few days. I emailed him your blog and his comments were, “Yes, that’s well out of order. I can fix it for her if she wants, however.”

    So if you do want, or at least would like to talk to him about it, then mail me.


  17. Hey Cheryl! Bri here – Frank and I are reading this and are just appalled! If you do decide to pursue this, we’d also be happy to contribute to a legal fund.

    It just sucks to hear people harassed by our border agents. It’s embarrassing.

    1. That’s very kind of you, Bri. Unfortunately at the moment it looks like a legal challenge would have very little chance of success, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s money. If that changes you can be sure I’ll let people know.

  18. Wow, quite a situation Cheryl. Finding yourself up against these kind of government departments is a nightmare.

    However, I’m curious about one thing – I’m assuming this is a very unusual, rare case of bureaucracy gone crazy, because you say:

    “In late 2008 the CBP says I travel back and fore too often for their comfort, and they want me to get a visa.”

    Now, I have a British passport and travel to and from the US about once a fortnight on business, and about twice a year on leisure, and have done for the last five years. That’s a lot of travel, and each time I use the visa waiver and I’ve never, ever been looked at twice by the guys behind the desk at the airport.

    So just to be clear, I guess that’s the whole reason for your problem – the CBP should never have got in touch with you, because actually State were completely correct – you need to use the visa waiver always.

    Have I understood that correctly? It’s not actually State who were at fault, it was the CBP.

    1. Neither department thinks it is at fault. They both have the right to set whatever rules they like for visitors. Those rules can, if they wish, be fairly arbitrary.

  19. Dang, had missed that post – but followed the story on Twitter. Just wanted to wish you best of luck, Cheryl, hoping the situation clears in a manageable frame of time. :/

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