July 30, 2007

My US Visa Story

Security expert halvar.flake was denied entrance in the US for speaking at a conference. Which reminds me of the story behind my US visa, which I never fully told.

Security expert halvar.flake was denied entrance in the US for speaking at a conference. Which reminds me of the story behind my US visa, which I never fully told on the blog.

About 9 years ago, while finishing a Mastering Delphi book, I decided to spend three months in San Francisco, doing the copy editing work and the like by commuting to my publisher's office once a week. This ended up as a very nice experience, but that's another story. Knowing that you are allowed only 90 days in the US under the visa waiver program, I booked a return flight 90 days after my outbound one. This was indeed a mistake. The visa waiver program is for 90 days including the day or arrival and departure, that is 89 nights. Having realized the problem I did ask several people at the Italian consulate and elsewhere how big a deal this would have been. "Not a big deal", everyone told me. And inded no one complained when I left the country and a had just a couple of extra questions when I got back a few months later.

Fast forward to year 2002 (or 2003, I'm not even sure). I take another trip to the US (there have been a few in between, even after 9/11) and I get questioned, send to second level inspection, questioned even more... was threatened refusal to enter the country, but was allowed under a special provision (possibly because I was with my wife and daughter... but probably because I looked sincere. They asked me things like: "how many trips did you make to the US over the last 10 years?". Now, many people will know, but I was getting in and out about 3 times a year at the time, so getting the exact answer was tough. After some thinking I was guess an answer, and the police officer would correct me, as he had the exact number on his computer. "How many days on average?" this went or for half an hour. Now, beside my answers and my family, what really saved the day and got me in the country that day was that I had a US taxpayer number, related with the writing activity. I didn't realize at first, but I'm sure this made a big difference.

I was allowed in the country, but this was the end of my trips under the visa waiver program. Get a full visa, I was told. And I did. After spending 100 USD to apply, getting a document from my bank saying I was a known and reliable person, making a couple of trips to the US consulate in Milan (line before entering, take your number and wait, get to talk with someone don't really caring about you), I ended up with my 10-years business visa. I cannot stay more than 180 days each year, but can do as many trips as I like (apparently). Now, this is done I though, foolishly.

Since that time, in fact, and until 7 years from the original accident had passed (there is a 7-years relevance for some offenses, I've been told) every single time I went though customs I was told: "you're record says you need a full visa to enter, I see you have it, but you I don't have the power to clear you, so you need to go to 2nd level inspection". At this further inspection I generally get even fewer questions, as I do have the visa I need to have. Having dared to ask why, I was told this is the proper procedure, no way to change it. Now, if my questioning at the 2nd level is generally a couple of minutes, it can take an hour or two waiting before you get to that. I had once to wait for a Romanian lady to get her daughter enter the restricted area from the outside (she was waiting for her mom at the airport) after they tried for about half an hour to make her translate questions and answers over the phone.

Over the last few trips I was once spared this hassle, than had to do it again... so I'm not sure about the future. I know I have to allow for a lot of time before connecting flights! And I'm not sure what will happen once my current password expires (as this would happen while the visa is still valid). The good think is I don't need to get the new "electronic" passport, which is now required to enter the US under the visa waiver program, as I do have a regular visa.

OK, this is the story. Is all this making the US more secure? I really doubt. No one ever checked my criminal record (not that I have one!), but my bank and taxes. Is this preventing people obtaining illegal jobs in the US? Possibly, but I'm not really sure if this works. I could just keep saying I'm traveling for business for my Italian company, and none would object, nor check I'm actually paying taxes (all it matters is formally have a tax payer number!).  Right now entering the US for tourism or for business is harder than in any other country I've been to (well, with the exception of Singapore, where they asked me to see my slides two weeks in advance and I had to be "cleared" on the actual content of my talk). As most measures are more formal than substantial (like the fingerprint stuff you have to do every time you enter or exit, the electronic passport, the terrorist lists with so many errors....) I wonder if the hassle is worth. I really doubt, but in todays world, you certainly have to live with it.

And one last thing, never ever pay for your flight with a check when it gets printed a couple of days before living (I had booked it over a month before at a local travel agency), because it is very terrorist-like to book a flight at the last minute paying cash! Oh boy, how many times I was questioned on that trip a few years back... what saved me that time was the booking printed well in advance.



My US Visa Story 

As some security experts like Bruce Schneier wrote 
(see for example http://www.schneier.com/essay-
072.html), probably those checks cost a lot and risk 
to be ineffective.
The problem is they need to show they are doing 
something to address the terrorism issue, and the 
more visible the solution it is (like forbidding 
liquids, despite such explosives are almost 
impossible to prepare), the better. Electors will see 
it and think "our congressmen think about us". If 
something happens, they could say "we did as much as 
we could!!!".
Probably those money would be better in spent in more 
and better intelligence - which would help much mor, 
but to be effective would be almost invisible. 
Comment by Luigi D. Sandon on July 30, 18:48

My US Visa Story 

US is now in Paranoid state but whether they really
put their efforts on the right places remains to be
Comment by Fernando Madruga [http://memyselfanddelphi.blogspot.com] on July 30, 18:48

My US Visa Story 

Welcome to the club ;)
There are a lot of stories with visas and not only US 
one. And I have my story I can talk for hours, but 
let’s leave it aside until my status will be 
cleared ;)

First, after your passport expires, but not a visa, 
you would need to carry your old passport with you 
and this should work.
Bank and Tax check is to ensure you have "no intend" 
to not come back since you have enough money and no 
tax fraud history. And there is nothing which will 
prevent you to work for cash here... ;)
On some airlines you wouldn't be allow to get on 
board if you have no paper ticket. We have witnessed 
a situation when LED airlines declined people be 
sited because they did not have paper slip for 
connection flight they have later with another 
airline. This supposes to prevent them jump off the 
flight to stay in one of the European countries... We 
were trying to help them for few hours but with 
little of success...
When having multi-visa you are ok to stay extra few 
days in the US, if you are ensure that you are more 
then 180 day outside later...
Comment by Serge [http://blog.dragonsoftru.com] on July 30, 19:07

My US Visa Story 

> Is all this making the US more secure?

No, it's not.  Welcome to BushWorld(TM)!  Things will 
only get worse....
Comment by jms [] on July 30, 21:21

Just like gun control, this only affects the honest people you have nothing to fear from. 

I live just north of the USA, and I swear, you could 
not PAY me to enter the US right now - they are just 
NUTS.  I have no interest in visting the gestapo 
state of the land of the free.  Who needs that kind 
of stress in their life?

This is definitely a case of a few jerks ruining it 
for everyone.  Thank the gods bush can't run again.

Of course, if anyone REALLY cared to get in, they 
would probably notice that mexicans continue to just 
POUR in the southern border unchecked and reporters 
continue to walk through locked security doors at 
will.  I gotta think even the nut jobs have noticed 
Comment by Xepol on July 30, 23:57

My US Visa Story 

Hi Marco,

I'd be interested to know if you had any issues 
getting into Australia.

Comment by Jeremy North [http://jedqc.blogspot.com] on July 31, 01:48

My US Visa Story 

 It's not just Bush, it's screwed up US bureaucracy. 
Not a visa story, but:  My family and I just went to
Utah to see some of the most beautiful sights on
earth.   Leaving from Vegas airport, security was
typical: bored, surly, and otherwise unemployable. 
Carry ons get to x ray, and immediately start coming
back with barked orders to remove water bottles, take
out the laptop, you cant take that nail file, yell
bark yell yell yell.  When I get home and unpack my
backpack and there is a four inch (closed) swiss army
knife that we got my son for a souvenir.  This knife
is 8 inches total with the blade out, contains saws
and other hijacker handy tools, and a corkscrew that
makes me wince to think what some terrorist could do
to me.  

Bottle with swallow of water?!! Throw that crap away
now!!!!!  Laptop!!?  Let me see that personally!! 
Knife that could go completely through that skinny
steward dude?!! (I swear to god, he looked like an
Olson twin, except prettier).  No problem, we don't
even need to even mention that, hell, we didn't even
see it, have a nice and safe flight, sir!

Anybody feel any safer now?
Comment by AintB on July 31, 07:49

My US Visa Story 

Wait until American's will be stopped from leaving.
This is the start of the end for Freedom in USA.
Comment by American on August 2, 01:18

My US Visa Story 

 On behalf of America, I apologize for your 
treatment, Mr. Cantu. 

Regarding some earlier comments, I'm an American 
citizen living in America and *I* refuse to fly 
within the borders under the current conditions! The 
level of scrutiny of irrelevant things, while cargo 
going onto the planes remains mostly unchecked, is 
insane. And as a supply chain/logistics professional, 
don't even get me started on the lack of screening at 
the ports. 

And it's not even just flying that's a problem. Even 
driver's licenses are now a nightmare. Here in New 
Jersey, one now needs multiple documents, all of 
which have point values, to prove you're a citizen 
and who you say you are. As if the inability to 
legally drive would deter a terrorist! 

I accompanied my 74-year-old father to the Department 
Of Motor Vehicles to help him renew his license. 
After waiting at least two hours, he finally gets to 
speak to someone. He's told his birth certificate 
from a neighboring state isn't "good enough" as it 
doesn't have a raised seal on it. He's asked if he 
has any other documents worth the points of his birth 
certificate. My father, a veteran, snaps, "I have a 
purple heart; you want to see that?" I come over and 
ask what's going on. After the long explanation I say 
very loudly it's a shame that a man who fought for 
his country gets his citizenship questioned like 
this. He ends up having to contact his home state for 
a copy of his birth certificate, which requires 
another ton of documentation to be sent. 

Now my 63-year-old mother is TRYING to renew hers. 
Forewarned, she sent away for a new copy of her birth 
certificate and after weeks was informed her request 
could not be processed because of some problem with 
one of the documents. She sent in more information, 
but they lost it all. At this point, her license has 
expired. I was with her a few days ago when she was 
on the phone trying to find out what the status was 
and she mentioned she didn't see why this was 
necessary. I'm told the clerk she was talking to 
started proclaiming how this was all necessary 
"because of 9/11 and terrorists". When my mother 
relays this to me in real time, I tell her to tell 
the person she's talking to that none of the 
perpetrators of 9/11 were in the country illegally 
(nor were they driving illegally) and that the real 
reason this started because in a review after 9/11 
several Department of Motor Vehicles employees were 
found to be selling phony licenses to illegal 
immigrants. This is all a face-saving maneuver that 
has nothing to do with 9/11. My mother just said that 
the person on the phone began to "go ballistic" at 
this. I'm not surprised; when I went through this 
process I asked one question during the process about 
the process itself (it seemed they had one person at 
the office to pre-check your documents, then the 
second person you finally saw checked them all over 
again) the person in charge suddenly noted something 
about my birth certificate "I don't think ones from 
that town are supposed to be that color" and I got 
subjected to yet a third round of document 
verification. At least my mother finally got her new 
birth certificate 2 days ago after getting another 
department to help her.

I had another incident in which my social security 
card was lost. I didn't have enough "document points" 
to renew my license without the card, and the license 
expired before I could get an appointment at the 
social security administration. But I also didn't 
have enough points to get a new social security card 
because they wouldn't accept a three days expired 
license! I finally got a meeting with someone higher 
up, and prompty informed them that this was insane. 
The Internal Revenue Service, with which I was paying 
off a tax debt, had *no problem whatsoever* believing 
I was a U.S. citizen and who I said I was! :-) I 
wanted a card or the ability to stop paying 
taxes. :-) The higher-up finally told me that the 
other person I'd talked to during my previous 
appointment was completely wrong and she'd accept the 
license as proof of identity.

AintB: It was before 9/11, but on a cross-country 
trip to Idaho, I realized when I was next in line at 
the metal detector that I'd forgotten I had my pocket 
knife in my pocket. I saw that people were emptying 
their pockets of keys and change before going through 
the detector (had only flown once before at age 13). 
Now, I'm no magician, but what I did was I palmed my 
knife then removed my wallet and placed the wallet on 
top of the knife into the little dish they had for 
holding your keys and change and such. I then passed 
through the detector with no problems, made an 
immediate grab for the dish on getting through, and 
similarly blocked the view of the knife while 
slipping it and my wallet back into my pocket. I'd 
assumed (hoped?) it was much harder to bring knives 
onto a plane these days, but your story says 
otherwise. Meanwhile, while trying to meet my ride in 
Idaho (a friend's daughter, who I'd never met), I 
ended up passing back through to the departure side 
of the airport trying to find her. My luggage I was 
carrying triggered some type of bomb screening! I was 
stopped and my luggage inspected. The poor old man 
examining it said he was sure it was just a mistake, 
but opened it quite gingerly and just poked at things 
with his finger, as if he expected to die in an 
explosion any second! :-) Finally I said, "Here, you 
can go through it - dump it out", grabbed the clothes 
on top and took them out. What was underneath the 
clothes? My full-size iron! They ran it through their 
luggage scanner and - yes, it was telling them my 
iron was a bomb! They sheepishly ran it through 
again, this time to recalibrate their machine. One 
last pass - yay, no longer a bomb! I couldn't believe 
I'd gotten onto the plane with a knife, but triggered 
a bomb scare with my iron.

Having gone through these things and watched other 
citizens go through these things, I can just imagine 
what non-Americans must be going through every day 
when they try to travel to or from this country. And 
as for those of Middle Eastern descent it's got to be 
even worse. The next administration can't come soon 
enough for me. Maybe "9/11 fever" as I believe 
candidate Barrack Obama put it, will break by then. 
Comment by Joe on August 8, 10:34

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