How To Work and Travel in the Age of “Extreme Vetting:” Ditch Your Phone, Meet Abroad, and Brace for Surprise Visits

Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr

U.S. rules on work and travel are changing on a daily basis these days, as President Trump speeds onwards to fulfill his campaign promises.

The New York Times reported late Thursday, for example, that the U.S. is following through on Trump’s campaign promise of “extreme vetting” by creating more onerous requirements for obtaining a visa. This means that visitors from non-visa waiver countries will have to answer more questions both on their visa applications and in in-person interviews with U.S. officials.

Travel for U.S. citizens to the Middle East and Africa is going to change as well. Earlier in the week, the administration announced that people traveling to and from many countries within those regions would have to check in any gadgets larger than a phone.

Even if you do travel with just a phone, however, be prepared to either surrender your passwords during random checks by customs and border protection staff or travel with a wiped phone with no sensitive data or social media accounts accessible.

The following are just a few notes and thoughts generated by the events of the past couple of weeks.

A March 13 from NBC News reported:

“Data provided by the Department of Homeland Security shows that searches of cellphones by border agents has exploded, growing fivefold in just one year, from fewer than 5,000 in 2015 to nearly 25,000 in 2016.
According to DHS officials, 2017 will be a blockbuster year. Five-thousand devices were searched in February alone, more than in all of 2015.”

The story says that CPB officials stopped and searched a broad spectrum of travelers: businesspeople, citizens, and families. The common thread is that they’re Muslims. And DHS has the tools, it seems, to extract all kinds of data from your phone. (Oh, and apparently the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply at the border.)

“People within the agency may be feeling a little unleashed,” said Cynthia Juarez Lange, Fragomen’s lead Silicon Valley partner at a mid-March immigration and travel forum organized by Max Levchin’s Affirm, FWD.us, and Fragomen, the US’ largest immigration law firm.

Here are a few of Lange’s recommendations for companies, given the current environment:

  1. ) Determine your data access policy ahead of time for all employees who travel internationally.

“If you refuse to give up passwords, if you refuse to give them access, they probably will remove you from the United States,” she said. “You’ll probably get put on a plane. We’ve had clients whose emails have been read. It’s not unusual for that to happen. If you have concerns, take a wiped loaner laptop, and take a wiped phone with you if you don’t want those things accessed.”

“We’re getting more calls from US citizens that are afraid of traveling because they’re worried about it. There’s a lot of fear in the community,” she said. “People are calling in from India and saying: ‘I know I’m not from one of the six countries, but could they treat me like this?’ I think the answer is: You have to expect that when you are at a point of entry, you could be inspected. You could be a citizen, anything. Prepare, and know ahead of time how to behave.”

Brian X. Chen at The New York Times also has some tech advice for travelers, although I’m not sure if the “I can’t remember my password,” excuse will get you very far.

2.) Make sure your H-1B workers are doing exactly what you described in their applications.

Lange said that she expects more check-ups and site visits from immigration authorities to make sure that immigrants on H1-B visas are performing the tasks described in their visa applications.

“President Trump has increased the number of officers for a lot of these types of investigations, so expect that people will show up at the work site … if you’re an employer, make sure that everyone has a copy of the petition, and they read it, so it all lines up with what they’re doing,” she advised.

“If somebody has moved, changed jobs, is being paid something different, have it evaluated to see if you should go back to the government and update the petition.

There have been some cases over time where somebody was working on an H1-B, and they were working in a location that was different than the location on the petition. They were picked up and taken into custody. That is totally possible, and can happen, and the immigration department deems them to be ‘out of status.’”

3.) Be prepared for the flow of foreign-born but domestically educated STEM students to dry up.

President Obama’s administration gave foreign students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math an additional option to stay in the U.S. for three years so that they can get work experience and training.

In January, Vox obtained a leaked draft executive order that would have reversed that decision. The leaked order would have also rolled back the Obama administration’s decision to allow the spouses of H1-B immigrants to work.

Lange said that Silicon Valley executives have been meeting with Trump urging him to preserve the program. But he’s surrounded by people who want him to go through with it.

“However, as I said, there have been lots of meetings with President Trump, and the reports are that he’s in favor of entrepreneurs. We’ll see how that works out — it’s not all bleak.”

For those planning international meetings with citizens from countries that require visas, the simplest solution might simply to meet outside of the United States.

The immigration authorities made me organize a meeting here, I swear …

A recent trade and economic development meeting focused on Africa, for example, met without any Africans because the U.S. denied visas to all the African attendees. The affected countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, South Africa and Sierra Leone. According to the story, even official ambassadors from those countries were denied visas.