Today I tackled once more the beast that is travelling into the US for work purposes.  In case you missed it, I tried to enter in early Dec 2011 and was “allowed to withdraw my application” at that time.  The agent felt I had insufficient documentation to apply for a TN Visa as a Computer Systems Analyst.  Since then I have had my client write up exactly the letter the agent wanted to see – one that describes my role, salary, and anticipated tasks.  I combed through the online documentation about TN Visas in an effort to prepare for the day that I knew was coming – the day I needed to cross the border to meet with customers.  And today was that day.

So how did it go?  Well, the short version is “not well”.  The longer version is worth a read if you want some insight into how ridiculous this whole thing is.

I budgeted 2 hours for the Visa application process.  I called the border agents a couple of days ahead of time to make sure I knew how to actually apply for the TN Visa, where to go, who to speak to, that kind of thing.  Basically you need to state you are applying for a Visa at the car kiosk and they send you inside to secondary inspection.  I pulled up to the kiosk around 12:15.  The agent seemed slightly taken aback when I stated I wanted to apply for a Visa.  He simply filled out the little orange ticket, slapped it on my windshield, and referred me inside.  So far so good.

Once inside I waited 5 or 10 minutes in line – the Nexus line is a separate line that the agents seem to call people from randomly.  My timing seemed good as the agent from the car kiosk came inside and called me over, apparently shifting to his desk job for a little while.  We went through the questions and I explained the various documents I had with me.  He set aside some of them as irrelevant and not necessary.  He then asked for my application.  I was a little stumped – nobody had mentioned an application form before.  Some references I had read hinted at it and I had searched online for any kind of form I could fill out ahead of time.  The only thing I could find was the full Visa application process that is done via an online tool that takes weeks to process.  Nobody had even hinted at using that kind of a system for a TN Visa so I had assumed I could fill out the application form once I arrived.  The agent clarified that there was no application form – just an application from me for the Visa stating why I thought I qualified.  I suggested that the letter of employment and my contract covered that information – what further information was required?  He shrugged and asked if all the documents I wanted to submit for my application were in his hands.  I said yes, to which he then said he had a little project for me to do while he copied all the documents.  He gave me 2 pieces of plain white paper and a pen, and asked me to write down why I needed to apply for a TN Visa, including what I would be doing while in the US.  He sent me to the bench where I started writing.  I consider this as a gesture of good will – seriously I do.

Basically I wrote what had already been covered in the letter of employment, but expanded on the fact that the contract and letter referenced all the tasks I might do for the company, not necessarily what I was going to do today.  I then described exactly what I was going to be doing in the US for this trip – business meetings, user observation, discussions with customers, that kind of thing.

20 minutes later he called me over and read over my letter.  He asked me to write in even greater detail what exactly I would be doing in the US, as in what would I be doing when I sat in a chair at the hospital.  I write down that I would observe users, talk with them about their challenges using the product, gather information, and then leave the country.  All further analysis, documentation, and work would be done from my home office in Canada.

He read it over and asked me to sit down again.  OK, the bench was barely cold from my last sitting session, and I was starting to feel at home in these offices.  It was my 5th time in 3 months I think – as I now have been marked as high risk and am shuttled into secondary inspection even if I’m going across the border to buy milk.

The agent returned some 10 minutes later or so and motioned me over.  He wanted more information on what exactly I would be doing during these meetings.  I described for him in great detail the kind of things I would be looking at, watching for, and discussing with users.  He nodded, paused a moment, and stated that I didn’t need a TN visa to do what I had described.

Deer in the headlights moment for me – I hadn’t seen that one coming.  I explained that in December I was under the same impression but that an agent felt otherwise, and hence the start of this long, sordid, and unwelcome story.  I was told quite clearly that I needed a TN Visa then.  He shrugged and said he wasn’t sure what happened in December, but if all I was doing was as I had described today, then I didn’t need a TN Visa.  He said he had to go back outside but that another office would be with me in 2 or 3 minutes to wrap things up.  It was now 1:30 and I was starting to feel a little hopeful I might make my 5pm meeting in Seattle.

I was left to my own thoughts for a little while.  OK, it was longer than that – I was called at around 2:15 by another officer.  He called me down to the end of the desks.  When I arrived he violently twisted his monitor around so I could see the screen.  “What am I looking at?” I wondered. He slipped on his thick leather gloves and walked around to my side of the desk, throwing the mouse around the monitor with a loud bang.  He held my fingers to the finger print scanner one by one which felt strange as I had watched at least 30 other parties do this without the leather gloves and helping hands of an agent.  Once I was finger printed again (they took my prints in Dec), he twisted the monitor back to his side of the desk, walked around, looked me in the eye and said “You are being denied the TN Visa.”  He handed me my papers and asked if anything was missing.  Yes, my Nexus card was missing.  He walked off to find the card, radio crackling.

Denied?  Uh, another deer in the headlights moment.  When he returned I engaged in a bit of discussion, trying to understand what documentation I was missing now that I should have known about.  The agent clarified that he did not know anything about my case or documents, that he was just the one asked to tell me that my application was denied.  I expressed surprise as the other agent had said I didn’t actually need a TN Visa.  This agent said that I had come into the office applying for a TN Visa, and that my application was being denied.  I asked the obvious question … was I being denied because I didn’t need one?  He sighed a little bit and sat down, suddenly becoming a little nicer.  He started to ask me the same questions and I explained what exactly I was going to be doing in Seattle.  To that he said that I did not need a TN Visa to do those activities.  All I needed was a B1 Visa.  They’re meant for professionals who are going to the States for business meetings.  Why was I applying for a TN?  I explained the background again and he shrugged, saying all he knew was that I was being denied the TN.

OK, time to think about how to move forward – I asked him if I could just line back up and apply for a B1 Visa.  He frowned a little, and went to speak with someone else.  When he returned he said that his supervisor had said that I would not qualify for a TN Visa as a Computer Systems Analyst, but that perhaps I should consider applying as a Management Consultant.  I clarified that I don’t actually manage anyone, and that I was unfamiliar with that profession’s qualifications.  “I guess you have some reading to do then, don’t you.”  Sure I do.  But not qualifying as a Computer Systems Analyst? That floored me.  I probed about the B1 – could I just line up and apply for a B1?  He said that his supervisor had made it clear that if I wanted to apply for a B1 I would need to have some concrete documentation detailing what I would be doing during the meetings, probably from the company itself, so that they could ensure that I wasn’t a Management Consultant trying to sneak in under a B1.  The best suggestion he could offer was to seek legal counsel, or try for a B1 with more documentation (if it exists).

It was 2:30 and I was escorted back outside and got to drive up a really fancy ramp, leaving secondary inspection.  All I received was a white form that stated I had been denied in my application.  Sadly the large white box labelled “Reason for Denial” or some-such was left blank.  Not really helpful.  I headed home through Nexus into Canada, where the Nexus agent asked to give her the form, leaving me with nothing.  Well, not anything physical.  I know my record at the border is growing quite robustly, so that’s something right?

The idea that I don’t qualify as a Computer Systems Analyst is, frankly, mind boggling.  Here’s a description of what that profession does, taken from the NAFTA Handbook:

The legacy INS Manual for NAFTA applications defines a systems analyst as an information specialist who analyzes how data processing can be applied to the specific needs of users and who designs and implements computer-based processing systems. NAFTA Handbook (November 1999). A computer systems analyst studies an organization or business to identify its information needs and designs computer systems to meet those needs.

Thhhaaaattt’s pretty much verbatim what I stated I would be doing in Seattle.

So what’s the moral of this story?  I don’t know right now.  I can appreciate that they want to protect US jobs, but this is really beginning to feel like something is wrong – maybe they need a “Management Consultant” to come in and look at their processes and try to improve them.  In the meantime I may now have shown up on a national terrorist list what with all the denied entrances into the US.  Sure they’re our neighbours, but sometimes they don’t act very neighbourly.