When the federal government disbanded the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on March 1, few of the millions who had braved its byzantine ways lamented the bureaucracy's passing. But now that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken over America's ports of entry, the INS may have gained an unlikely new fan base: French technology journalists.
On the weekend of May 10-11, at least a half-dozen French television reporters arriving in Los Angeles for the massive E3 video game expo were barred from entering the country by agents from the DHS' new Bureau for Citizenship and Immigration Service, on grounds of not having obtained the necessary journalist visas. Though the DHS and BCIS refused to discuss the details of the case, eyewitnesses say the French were trying to enter under the Visa Waiver program, a 17-year-old loophole that allows citizens from 27 friendly countries to visit the U.S. visa-free for up to 90 days, as long as the purpose of the trip is "business or pleasure." Though some may reasonably consider journalism to be a little of both, the State Department does not, and now some of Tom Ridge's boys at Homeland Defense have decided that a rich tradition of non-enforcement can no longer be tolerated.
A journalist visa, or I-Visa, requires a non-refundable $100 processing fee, and a "comprehensive letter from the journalist's employer on the employer's letterhead identifying the journalist and describing in detail the nature and function of the journalist's position." In other words, it's not user-friendly for freelancers, or for people prone to hopping on planes to cover breaking news. That and the usual legalistic confusion -- one can search on government Web sites for hours without deciphering what forms a freelancing European is required to fill out -- have made Visa Waiver the go-to entry procedure for visiting hacks.
Now those same reporters face long-term disbarment if their names show up on the DHS' new immigration database, which is being used to punish all kinds of prior INS-dodging behavior. "I've heard about people being sent back to Germany if they overstayed one day on a previous visit," says Michael Wolff, press officer of the German Consulate in Los Angeles.
Boo-hoo, says the State Department. "If some of [the reporters] are savvy, and have effectively defrauded the government by saying they're just coming for tourist purposes or just general business, they might want to be wary," says Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
But visa policies are by definition reciprocal. If word gets out that European journalists are being led away in handcuffs and sent back on the next plane, their American counterparts can count on some of the same. At least the video game conferences will be safe from French cameramen.