Eye on the United States

U.S. Visa Paranoia

The plane lands in Los Angeles, and after 13 hours in the air, all you want to do is get to your hotel and have a hot shower. But the routine questioning at the border quickly descends into a nightmare as you are handcuffed and hauled off to a detention cell to await the next flight home. This is no terrorist arrest but the fate of dozens of journalists in 2003, as the U.S. crackdown on border security extends to the media.

While most Australians can travel to the United States for business or pleasure without a visa for up to 90 days, U.S. immigration officials have started enforcing a rule requiring members of the media to hold a special I-visa. Yet nobody at the U.S. Embassy in Australia was able to explain the reason for the law, despite several queries to Washington. “Obviously somewhere along the way there was a reason for it and it would be nice for all of us to know,” U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Counselor Susan Crystal says. “We, like Australia, welcome freedom of speech, and the an important part of United States and Australian democracies.”

The I-visa is part of the amended Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 and was specifically excluded from the visa waiver scheme, which Australia joined as a pilot program in 1996. It covers reporters, editors, photographers, producers, and film crews working on documentary films (entertainment filmmakers must apply for a different visa), costs US$317 and is valid for multiple entries within five years.

A spokesman for the visa section of the U.S. Consulate General in Sydney says the visa waiver program is suitable when members of the media travel to the United States on holidays but not if they intend to work. He says a journalist attending a conference to interview people and write articles is different from an accountant attending the same conference simply to listen to the speakers and meet people. A B-1 visa is required if the accountant intends to perform accounting work while in the United States. But, until this year, many journalists were unaware of the I-visa and traveled to the United States on the visa waiver program without trouble.

Border control now falls under the auspices of the newly created Department of Homeland Security; the crackdown happened in January 2003, after the appointment of Department Secretary Tom Ridge. In February, border officials refused entry to Robert Fidgeon, the television writer for the Herald Sun in Melbourne, and Channel 7 publicist Tamar Munch, who flew to Los Angeles so Fidgeon could interview the stars of television shows such as “24,” “Boston Public,” “The Practice,” “Still Standing,” and “Angel.”

Since then, the same thing has happened to Sydney freelance writer Dan Kaufman, telecommunications journalist Natalie Apostolou, and New Idea associate editor Sue Smethurst, as well as five French video-game journalists attending a trade show in March.

Fidgeon says he had traveled to the United States numerous times for work with no problems before this trip. In fact, he was initially granted the visa waiver on this occasion, too, and was waiting on the other side when Munch ran into problems. “I told them I was here for an international press event, and I think the word ‘press’ alerted them,” Munch says. “I tried to explain my role at a television network was fairly administrative—it was the same as being a PA or an accountant or a cleaner at a television network—but they didn’t seem to understand.”

When Fidgeon was drawn into the conversation, the guard canceled his visa waiver as well. The pair were denied entry and deported to Australia, where they applied for I-visas and successfully returned to the United States later that week. Munch has since confirmed with U.S. consular officials that she should not have required an I-visa, but she believes the border guards found it easier to send both of them back rather than just Fidgeon.

Kaufman sees little point in the I-visa because border officials can readily establish who someone is and whether they’re a security threat in less time than it takes to send them back. “Even if you say ‘the law’s the law, we have to send you back, no arguments,’ did they really have to handcuff me, frisk me, and take away my boot laces? It’s insane and no one can really explain it.”

Kaufman says the border guards told him he had been “too honest” when filling out the form. But the spokesman for the U.S. Consulate said if someone lied they could be banned entry altogether. Kaufman and the other journalists can return once they have the correct visa. But, now having a permanent immigration record, they must declare “yes” when asked if they’ve ever been refused entry to the United States or another country.

New Idea associate editor Smethurst, 30, fell foul of U.S. Immigration on her way to interview Olivia Newton-John in November. “It was grossly exaggerated,” she says. “There was no justification for the extent of their behavior.” Smethurst was the only one of the five to contact the Australian Embassy, which was mostly powerless but able to organize a cup of hot tea and permit her to be taken to the plane in the presence of armed guards but without handcuffs.

She was so incensed by her treatment that she went public with the story as soon as she returned. U.S. Ambassador Tom Schieffer responded, telling a Melbourne radio station the incident was “unfortunate” but that Smethurst did herself no favors by resisting the fingerprinting and “throwing a tantrum.”

The fact that all the journalists were asked detailed questions about their publications—the readership, circulation, and even whether each writes “politically sensitive material”—is only to establish that the people are who they say they are, Crystal says. “I would expect that [someone with an I-visa] can report on anything and write whatever they want. We’re certainly not screening publications.”