THE BLOG

Freelancing and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

08/23/2011 04:29 EDT | Updated 10/24/2011 05:12 EDT

This piece could also be titled "Five Hours of My Life I'll Never Get Back."

So there I am, on my way to visit a longtime client in the U.S. for a semi-annual visit. They like to see my face a couple of times a year and graciously pay my way down for a couple of days of meetings and strategizing.

I present myself to U.S. Customs and tell them I am going for business, I am a writer, collateral material, yadda, yadda: As I have done for way too many years and until now, never had an issue.

"Take your documents, turn right and through the doors with the flags." I will admit, portions of my life flashed before me--the more embarrassing ones -- as I dutifully headed for the star spangled banners.

I found myself sitting in the customs section of the DHS. Swell. I had no idea why I was there and as I sat there for an hour and a half before anyone approached me, I was treated to the theatre that is the excruciatingly boring machinations of perhaps the largest bureaucracy short of the CRA or IRS. My flight left without me.

Finally, an officer, and I will say at the outset I was treated with the utmost respect and courtesy, called me over and asked me the same questions as the officer outside. Then I was told to go and sit down. Another hour.

Stay with me, there is important info coming.

Having now invested close to three hours I still had no idea why I was there. People came and went and there I sat. An RCMP officer sat in the corner reading the paper. Apparently, even though this was technically U.S. soil, DHS can't actually arrest anyone, as they have no jurisdiction. But I wasn't allowed to leave. You are allowed to be confused.

Finally I was ushered into the ubiquitous small, windowless room. Same officer, very nice fellow. I saw no benefit to me to be either difficult or obstreperous, so I was sworn in and they took my statement.

Ok, here's the info part. Even though I and countless others had successfully been doing this kind of trip for years Customs/DHS apparently has decided to crack down on 'foreigners' that they determine are 'working' for U.S. companies. Some of us require something called a Treaty Nafta (TN) Visa. While they may have always required one, I was unaware and was told that most people in my position don't until we get 'caught.'

So I answered a slew of questions to determine my status, was fingerprinted -- I had the chance to decline, but if I did, I would likely find myself back there as my interview would be deemed 'incomplete.' Since I have no plans to do crime or become a serial killer in the U.S., I complied. I'm sure all you civil libertarians are appalled, but whatever.

Many have said why not just say you were going down for pleasure? I asked the Canadian Border Services officer who escorted me back to Canadian soil -- about 30 feet from DHS -- the same question. He told me that if you are caught lying to US customs officials, they will haul your sorry behind in every time you try to get into the states for the next seven years.

And I can tell you they are wholly unconcerned with your travel plans, missed flights, connections etc.

The moral of this tale is that if you are a Canadian freelancer doing business with a U.S. company that requires you to actually visit them once in a while, you might need to get familiar with the TN Visa. Oh, and you must be able to prove you meet the criteria of the jobs listed as available for a TN Visa. You may simply be hooped, but the list is quite extensive.

I've never been much of a liar as I get all blotchy and fidgety, which is pretty unattractive. In this case, honesty may not have been the best policy given the outcome, but apparently it was.

What's the old saying?

You don't have to keep track of the truth.

So if you are in the same situation with clients in the U.S., be advised; look into the TN Visa or save all you questions for the client's Christmas party. Apparently you don't need a visa for that. I guess I'll find out.