Visa views revised

IN JUNE, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) caused alarm with an ambiguously worded press release that seemed to re-impose an insuperable barrier for unaffiliated freelance journalists trying to enter the States. Earlier in the year the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) had challenged an apparent impasse in which a hack without a commission couldn't obtain a journalist's I-visa because they couldn't produce an employer's endorsement, effectively banning them from travelling on spec. The solution proposed by the US Embassy was to travel on a business visa.

The DHS's June Press Release, which appears to have been written in ignorance of the advice given by the embassy, doomily intoned: "Representatives of... foreign information media have occasionally applied for admission to the United States as non-immigrants with B-1 business visas, or as business visitors under the Visa Waiver Program. The Immigration and Nationality Act does not allow them to enter in that manner. They are required to enter under an I-visa that applies to working journalists".

Urgent calls to the embassy on behalf of the ABSW and the NUJ eventually resolved the situation. An Embassy official with no less a title than Minister Counsellor for Public Affairs, Dan Sreebny has explained that the DHS release was a dig at those UK staff hacks who couldn't be bothered with proper visas.

On 17 June Sreebny e-mailed: "... the information contained in our embassy's February 19, 2004 letter to [the ABSW] remains correct... Freelance journalists who do not meet [the criteria for an I-visa] and are travelling... on speculation for future journalistic work... may qualify for a B-1 business visa".

He acknowledges the rules for US visas are very complex and warns they're likely to change from time to time. He recommends travellers check the regulations linked from before making any travel plans.

Sreebny also reminds us that carrying a visa is no guarantee of entry into any country. Even with a visa, the final decision to admit you is taken by inspectors at the port of entry after quizzing you about your plans.

The signals coming from the US Immigration authorities remain ambiguous. The US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Robert C Bonner is quoted in the release as saying: "While we carry out our mission and enforce our laws, we realize there is a difference between fraud and failure to be informed of the legal requirements for entering the United States. That is why we are giving our Port Directors leeway when it comes to allowing journalists to enter the US who are clearly no threat to our security".

The discretion will be considerable. Journalists turning up with the wrong visa or none will be referred to a senior official who is allowed to consider a 'one-time authorization to enter'.

Reassuring though this is, it would be unwise to plan entry this way: there are no guarantees and it's likely delays would be considerable but, if you are admitted, the only penalty would be a slap-on-the-wrist warning that you mustn't do it again. "We are an open society", says Commissioner Bonner, "and we want people to feel welcome here". Nice but, on the other hand, if immigration officials take against you, deportation will follow without appeal and recent publicity makes it clear that the practice of handcuffing deportees will continue.

Off-record US administration sources admit their own confusion and embarrassment. Privately it's acknowledged that that some post 9/11 dealings with visiting journalists have been unnecessarily harsh. Visiting hacks - especially loner freelances - are advised to play it very meek indeed.

  • Mike would like to receive your anecdotes about freelance travel to the US - especially if you've tried entry without a specific commission. Your stories will be kept unattributable if you prefer.
Last modified: 29 August 2004 - © 2004 contributors
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