Yesterday, on my way to San Francisco to meet with my co-workers and spend a bunch of time with my friends, I was unexpectedly refused entry to the United States. I’m writing this down so I can point people at it rather than repeat myself.

I’ve been working for American companies for almost 20 years now. I lived in America for 4 years until 2004, but outside the US before and after that. I’m a Canadian citizen, and I still hold the UK passport that is my birthright. In most instances, I was employed by a legal entity registered wherever I was living. When I signed on with CircleCI, we were small enough that being paid in Canada was not a supported configuration. No problem though, I can be self-employed, get myself an Employer Identification Number, file a W9, and I’m all good. This works well for me, I can get paid some yankee dollar, write off a bunch of expenses, take some side work as a hacker school mentor, etc.

This is not an unusual situation, but whenever I travel to the US the level of paranoia it generates is nervewracking. In the old days, even though I would sometimes find myself getting tongue tied about what I was supposed to be doing while I was there, it was always basically good because I was not technically employed by an American company. But they would always dig dig dig and try to see how it was that I was managing to legally get away with working on American soil, for an American company, whilst not in possession of American citizenship or a work visa. It must have seemed like such a scam.

And that’s basically what it is. I’ve worked in remote teams of one kind or another now for 13 years. Some work better than others - the ones where everyone is remote, but within about 3 hours of timezones of each other are the best in my experience, and nothing is quite as productive as colocation, but the point is, it’s an increasingly common model, to be working together, as a single logical entity, across multiple legal entities, themselves all commonly owned by some parent or network leading to a parent. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, some of those legal entities may be sole trader consultants such as myself.

So when I enter the United States to spend a week meeting with and doing project work with my various co-workers from the many countries we now inhabit, I must say that yes, I will be compensated for my time while I’m there, and yes, I’m compensated by an American company, and I’ll be on American soil, and yes, I’ll be working on the things they’re paying me to work on, but… but what? That’s it.

Why doesn’t this happen more? I honestly don’t know. I suspect it’s because most people lie, and are lucky enough to not be pushed. I’ve been advised by a lawyer friend to tell them I am meeting with clients. I’ve done this successfully the last few times, and others report success. But when pushed as to whether I would be working while I’m there, what is the right answer? The truthful one is “yes”.

Other than that, it was a fairly typical dehumanizing border experience. I have a couple of observations about that.

  1. I was the only white person I saw in secondary screening.
  2. The people working in immigration wear black shirted uniforms.
  3. Every male uniformed officer I saw was a skinhead.
  4. In secondary screening, everything moves very slowly. My impression is that this is a form of mental torture.
  5. In secondary screening, you are not allowed to use electronics of any form. My impression is that this too is a form of mental torture.
  6. When I asked what would happen if I didn’t sign the withdrawal of my application (to enter?), a young angry-faced skinhead in a black shirt told me “then I will detain you and you will go up in front of an immigration judge, do you want that?” I may be misremembering the minutae of the sentence, but “do you want that?” made a strong impression.
  7. When I asked why the black shirted American skinhead needed my Canadian drivers’ license, when he was already in possession of my Canadian passport, he said irritably “do you want to travel to the US?” What I didn’t grasp until later was that he meant “ever again”, not “today”. I have no idea what the basis of that threat was but I have no doubt that the skinhead had the power to stop me ever returning to the US.
  8. When I was insufficiently contrite, a young angry-faced skinhead in a black shirt told me to sit down and come back when I had “lost the attitude”.

Some may say that if a black shirted angry-faced skinhead says I have a bad attitude, well then, I have a bad attitude and I should take it home with me and shut up. That’s fair.

To the serious point that if I hadn’t made a stupid quip (after he told me I would not be allowed to enter the US, he said something like “are you flying with Delta?” to which I replied “apparently not”) I probably would have skirted around the edge of the existential dread that I felt sitting there trying to get my grovel together: the dread is unavoidably a feature. That black shirted skinhead was very comfortable making arbitrary demands and acting like the shitty parent you hear yelling “because I said so” because they can’t be wrong. He had a very safe expectation that I would do exactly as he said. Basically, I had a taste of something that happens to people who are profiled all the time, but from which I’m mostly insulated by my colour, gender, sex, age and background. I sat in it, suffering this mildest of punishments for a tiny transgression, for 20 minutes, and it was crushing.

But then I walked away unscathed if uncomposed, got in a taxi and went home, so it could have been much, much worse.

At this point I’m not sure if this has any longer term implications for me. It probably does, even if it doesn’t, if you know what I mean.