The Weird Visa

As plague epidemics ravage the cities of the near future, a border-hopping medic gets tagged as a potential terror threat

Bill wasn’t sure whether he was chatting with a person or a bot, but either way they were obfuscatory as hell.

“We cannot allow you to unlock your account until you use your real name.”

“But Bill Hernandez is my name. It’s on my business cards. It’s on my university contact page.”

“International documentation shows that your real name is Guillermo Luis Hernandez.”

“I don’t go by that name. I thought Rolod.ex was about business contacts. How will my business contacts find me if you list me under a name that nobody knows?”

“Would you like to file a request for an account lock reexamination with our help desk? If you upgrade to a Rolod.ex gold subscription, your request will be resolved in 24 hours.”

Bill smacked his leg in frustration, abruptly shutting down the display. Unrolled across his lap was a swatch of leather-edged tweed stitched with invisibly small circuits and sensors — his desktop, now inactive. The cheerful cartoon bubbles of his conversation evaporated from the air as the projector powered down, revealing the coffee-colored walls of his apartment lit by late-afternoon sun. He was far enough up in the supertall that Mexico City’s rooftop antennas seemed to fuzz together below, forming a vast, chrome shag rug.

Piled around him was the highly specific debris of a public health researcher who never stayed at home for long. Half the main room was taken up by boxes overflowing with dongles that could turn cheap mobiles into medical tools — cannulated needles for taking blood and tissue samples, scanners for medical imaging, baseball-sized boxes for sequencing microbial genomes on the fly. Another part of the room held his suitcase and machine bag, always half-packed. The kitchen had a dusty sheen of neglect.

Bill had just gotten off the plane from Los Angeles, where another plague epidemic was eating its way through a few blocks of projects in one of the many neighborhoods that the LA Department of Public Health categorized as “at risk.” Partly thanks to this goddamn Rolod.ex listing, Bill’s work on plague outbreaks in Mexico City had landed him more and more gigs north of the border. A lot of docs up there had never seen bubonic plague before and had no idea how to respond. Until the outbreaks in the summer of ’32, it was considered a developing world problem. Not anymore.

With a sigh, Bill swept a hand across his desktop, as if he were smoothing a napkin in his lap. He’d deal with the Rolod.ex thing later. Right now he just needed some dinner before crashing. He twiddled his thumb and forefinger, turning an invisible knob in the air, scrolling through his favorite menus on Resto. After he ordered samosa and saag aloo, the app went into wait mode, broadcasting a waterfall of multicolored dots that bounced slowly from floor to ceiling. At last, a message appeared:

CashBuddy will not process your payment. Try again?

After Bill mucked around with Resto, and then CashBuddy, he discovered that CashBuddy had declared his credit card invalid. This was getting seriously annoying. First Rolod.ex and now CashBuddy? Was somebody messing with him?

It took an hour of talking his way through menus at Visa before Bill actually got a real person on voice.

“We did put a stop on your card, Mr. Hernandez,” she said. Based on her accent, he guessed she was at a call center somewhere up north. “Did you recently take a trip to the United States?”

Yes, he had.

For some reason, despite the fifteen other trips he’d taken to LA this year, Visa had decided now was the time to declare purchases “outside his local region” to be suspicious. The North American voice warned him that he would need to notify Visa every time he traveled outside Mexico City from now on, “just in case.” But now, at least, he could buy dinner.

No TV after dinner, though. He needed his Rolod.ex account to log into Netflix and iTunes, and he really didn’t want to deal with the Rolod.ex bullshit right now. He settled for reading a few PDFs of recent medical journal articles he’d saved on his tablet.

***

Everything was worse the next morning. His account on the collectivo bus app was “flagged,” so he had to pay in pesos. Same thing with his Starbucks account. Even his staff ID had some kind of hold placed on it, so he had to wait for a student to swipe her mobile over the lock before he could get into the epidemiology lab. By the time he reached the campus ID office to straighten out the thing with his building access permissions, Bill was having a thoroughly shitty day.

The staffer behind the glowing display window was strangely comforting. “Were you up north recently?”

Bill explained about the emergency trip to deal with an epidemic in Los Angeles.

She nodded. “Yeah, you’re part of that group that gets a special visa to enter the States for emergencies, right? We’ve seen a couple of these in the last few days.” She snapped the fingers on her right hand, dismissing a couple of windows. “Should be fine now. Let me know if you have any other issues, though. Did they shut down your Facebook or Roled.ex or anything?”

He gave her the short version of his Rolod.ex saga.

She barked a laugh. “Well good luck. There’s been a new ISIS crackdown on the socials up north so people with weird visas sometimes get flagged.”

“Wait — why would an ISIS crackdown have anything to do with Rolod.ex or my damn key card?”

“It’s some new data sharing law they passed. When you go through the border, data from your socials gets sent to the US government. All the big companies are working with the DHS to track terrorist networks or something. Whatever is connected to your socials is going to be affected.”

Bill felt his stomach tighten. He couldn’t even remember all the things he’d accessed using his Rolod.ex login, but his university account was one of them.

***

That evening, Bill gave in and bought the gold subscription to Rolod.ex. Soon he was chatting with a rep who seemed less bot-like than the last one.

The rep needed multiple forms of evidence that Bill Hernandez was his real name, including a copy of his employment contract with the National Institute for Public Health of Mexico. Finally, his account was unblocked. Bill’s intense relief at being allowed to exist on a crappy social networking site was just as annoying as being banned from it.

But he still had one last question. “Do you know why my account was flagged?”

“Your photograph came up in a random identity search, and that’s when we found the discrepancy between your real name and your account name.”

“Why did my photograph come up?”

“I can’t tell you that, Mr. Hernandez. These are random searches conducted in partnership with DHS and law enforcement under the new data sharing rules.”

Bill snapped his fingers and exited the chat window. He stared at the picture on his Rolod.ex page, a bland headshot taken at a conference four years ago in Bogotá. His brown skin stood out against the white wall of some anonymous conference room. Maybe it was just the right color to capture the attention of a facial recognition algorithm looking for suspicious types with “weird visas.”

That couldn’t really be it, could it? Racial profiling? Weren’t there civil liberties laws that prevented those kinds of things? Bill sighed and half-heartedly did a Baidu search on “racial profiling laws United States.” Of course every hit took him into a snarl of debates and comment threads. The rhetorical mess left him with the vague sense that racial profiling was technically unlawful, but something called phenotype datamining was permitted in terrorist-related cases.

Maybe some dumb bot at Rolod.ex thought he looked like an ISIS agent.

***

Three months later, Bill got an urgent message on Rolod.ex chat. Another outbreak, this time at a trashed squat in an LA suburb called Garden Grove. A group of epidemiologists at UCLA wanted him to fly up and help with diagnosis on the ground. It was a perfect chance to try the new version of his diagnosis app. Bill went immediately to the department office, where they always took care of his visa.

“Oh crud,” said the administrator on duty. He was a new guy that Bill had never met before. “Getting you a visa is going to be a major pain.” The admin gestured at a dense blob of text hovering in the air between them. “Something got screwed up at the border last time you went to California.”

“What do you mean, screwed up?”

“You got into the States using a special status called parole,” the administrator said. “Sometimes the border agents use it when people need to go up for emergencies, but mostly it’s used for refugees. It’s not really the right designation for you. But now it’s on your record permanently.”

“So I’ve been designated a refugee in some US immigration database?” A lot of things were suddenly starting to make sense.

Bill had been so obsessed with his Rolod.ex trauma that he’d actually forgotten what happened at the border the last time he went up north. He’d come armed with the usual paperwork, including a special letter from the governor of California giving him emergency status as a plague fighter. But something had gone wrong; he had to wait while the border guards made several calls. When they were done, one of them mumbled something about a visa workaround.

That must have been the moment when he got reclassified with the parole visa. He imagined the information cascade that followed. The parole threw up a “possible refugee” flag, which got correlated with his Rolod.ex account on some government server. That triggered the supposedly random image search, and his brown face threw up another flag. Now he was a possible refugee, and possibly from the Middle East. And that information was shared and re-shared until he couldn’t even order dinner online.

The admin looked up from twiddling with Bill’s visa application. “You’re probably fine, but…has anything weird happened since you got back from LA?”

Bill rage-gripped the mobile in his pocket. For the first time in his career, he started to wonder why he was doing this kind of work. Of course he wanted to help people. Urban epidemics were getting worse, and he’d spent years developing tools to help citizen scientists track and diagnose the plague.

But maybe it wasn’t going to be worth it anymore. If getting into the US meant going through this crap all over again, he might let them deal with their own plagues next time.