Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Some people in the comments of my blog have hinted that I should have just "followed the rules" and nothing would have happened. This is incorrect -- I did follow the rules. It is perfectly legal for an independent contractor to be contracted to perform a task in the US, come in, do it, and leave. That is (amongst other things) what the "business" checkbox on the I94W is for.

What landed me in this trouble is that the immigration agent decided that even though I am CEO of a company in Germany and have no employment contract with Blackhat (just a contract as an independent contractor), that the status of "independent contractor" does not apply to me - his interpretation was that I was an "employee" of Blackhat without an H1B visa.

This is not a case of me screwing up my paperwork. This is a case of an immigration agent that did not understand my attempts at explaining that I am not a Blackhat employee, and me not knowing the subtleties of being interviewed by DHS/INS agents.

I hope I will be able to clarify the misunderstanding on Thursday morning at the consulate.
Small addition to clarify: It is perfectly legitimate to come to the US to hold lectures and trainings of the kind that I am holding at Blackhat. To reiterate: The problem originated solely from a misunderstanding where it was presumed I was an "employee" of a US company, which is not correct.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Short update: I have managed to schedule a hearing for a regular visa. The first available date was the 24th of August *cough*.

While this is clearly too late for Blackhat, but once you have a "regular" meeting scheduled you can ask to have an "urgent" meeting scheduled, too. Wether I am eligible will become clear when the embassy opens at 7am on monday morning.

The current plan is to call them and explain them why the entire thing might've gone haywire in the first place:

There's a special provision in the german tax code that allows for people with certain qualifications to act as special 'freelancers', essentially giving them a status very similar to one-person-companies ("Freiberufler"). It is not totally trivial to obtain this status - for example, you cannot simply be a 'Freiberuf'-programmer if you write "regular" software.

My agreement with Blackhat and all transactions were taxed in Germany under this status.

Personally, I think the fundamental issue in this tragic comedy is that the US doesn't really have such a special status for freelancers, and that therefore the US customs inspector did not understand that there is a distinction between a "regular Joe" and a "single-person company/Freiberufler". Hence the customs officer assumed that this entire thing must be some devious way to bypass getting an H1B visa for someone that would not normally qualified to get one. The frequent repetition of the question "why is your course not given by an American Citizen ?" points to something like that.

I hope that I can clear up this misunderstanding tomorrow morning, but right now, I am not terribly optimistic.
I've been denied entry to the US essentially for carrying my trainings material. Wow.

It appears I can't attend Blackhat this year. I was denied entry to the US for carrying trainings materials for the Blackhat trainings, and intending to hold these trainings as a private citizen instead of as a company.

After a 9-hour flight and a 4 1/2 hour interview I was put onto the next 9-hour flight back to Germany. Future trips to the US will be significantly more complicated as I can no longer go to the US on the visa waiver program.

A little background: For the last 7 years, I have attended / presented at the 'Blackhat Briefings', a security conference in the US. Prior to the conference itself, Blackhat conducts a trainings session, and for the past 6 years, I have given two days of trainings at these events. The largest part of the attendees of the trainings are US-Government related folks, mostly working on US National Security in some form. I have trained people from the DoD, DoE, DHS and most other agencies that come to mind.

Each time I came to the US, I told immigration that I was coming to the US to present at a conference and hold a trainings class. I was never stopped before.

This time, I had printed the materials for the trainings class in Germany and put them into my suitcase. Upon arrival in the US, I passed immigration, but was stopped in customs. My suitcase was searched, and I was asked about the trainings materials.
After answering that these are for the trainings I am conducting, an immigration officer was called, and I was put in an interview room.
For the next 4 1/2 hours I was interviewed about who exactly I am, why I am coming to the US, what the nature of my contract with Blackhat is, and why my trainings class is not performed by an American citizien. After 4 hours, it became clear that a decision had been reached that I was to be denied entry to the US, on the ground that since I am a private person conducting the trainings for Blackhat, I was essentially a Blackhat employee and would require an H1B visa to perform two days of trainings in the US.

Now, I am a full-time employee (and CEO) of a German company (startup with 5 people, self-financed), and the only reason why the agreement is between Blackhat and me instead of Blackhat and my company is that I founded the company long after I had started training for Blackhat and we never got around to changing it.

Had there been an agreement between my company and Blackhat, then my entry to the US would've been "German-company-sends-guy-to-US-to-perform-services", and everything would've been fine. The real problem is that the agreement was still between me as a person
and Blackhat.

After the situation became clear (around the 4th hour of being interviewed), I offered that the agreement between Blackhat and my company could be set up more or less instantaneously - as a CEO, I can sign an agreement on behalf of my company, and Blackhat would've signed immediately, too.
This would've spared each party of us a lot of hassle and paperwork. But apparently, since I had just tried to enter as a 'normal citizen' instead as an 'employee of a company', I could now not change my application. They would have to put me on the next flight back to Germany.

Ok, I thought, perhabs I will have to fly back to Germany, set up the agreement, and immediately fly back to the states - that would've still allowed me to hold the trainings and attend the conference, at the cost of crossing the Atlantic three times instead of once. But no such luck: Since I have been denied entry under the visa waiver programme, I can now never use this programme again. Instead I need to wait until the American consulate opens, and then apply for a business visa. I have not been able to determine how long this might take -- estimates from customs officials ranged from "4 days" to "more than 6 weeks".

All this seems pretty crazy to me. From the point that 2 days of trainings constitute work that requires an H1B visa, via the issue that everything could've been avoided if I had been allowed to set up the agreement with Blackhat immediately, to the fact that setting up the agreement once I am back in Germany and flying in again is not sufficient, all reeks of a bureacracy creating work for itself, at the expense of (US-)taxpayer money.

I will now begin the Quixotic quest to get a business visa to the US. Sigh. This sucks.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Core guys have published a paper on a very cute heap visualisation tool.

What shall I say ? I like it, and we'll play a lot more chess with memory in the future.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

It seems that this country is spinning out of control. We barely have the economy back on track, and now our interior minister is fighting ghosts with flamethrowers:

This link refers to an interview with him where he proclaims that:
  • Germany should create the status of 'enemy combatant' and allow interning 'dangerous elements'
  • The 'targeted killing of suspects' is not in discord with our constitution, but a 'legal problem' that hasn't been 'fully clarified'
I have to admit that while I was critical about the fact that the Bush-Administration skipped due process and a host of other essential liberties in the Guantamo/Black Interrogation Sites affair, I was not all-too-concerned -- after all, after the next election the entire thing would've been rolled back and similar madness made impossible for the next n years. I am quite shocked that our interior minister, in desparate need for some agenda, would like to outdo the Bush Administration exactly at a point in time where these policies should be thoroughly discredited.

Time to write a letter to the representative in the german congress...sigh....