Monday 15 October 2018

Mark Evans: How President Trump got me a free sun holiday in Mexico

The US pre-clearance facility in Dublin Airport — a stop-off on a trip to the holding area
The US pre-clearance facility in Dublin Airport — a stop-off on a trip to the holding area
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

Regular readers will know that your columnist is no fan of visas for foreign travel. Background checks, sure. Rigorous security, ditto.

But visas are time-consuming, often money-making, exercises with little value, and are a barrier to trade and business productivity.

The little known US I Visa is one such obstacle to travel. Foreign media travelling to the US, and deemed to be there working - even for something as innocuous as a hotel or theme park review - must have a visa, and are ineligible for the standard visa-waiver scheme Esta enjoyed by most other travellers, including Irish tourists.

Obtaining an Esta is pretty much idiot-proof if you don't have a criminal record. But getting your hands on an I visa involves a convoluted application process, the production of supporting documents from employers and so on, a scheduled interview at the US embassy visa office in Dublin, and handing over $160 every five years.

It's a tiresome (and hated) process - and other visitors, including guest speakers and business people teeing up deals Stateside - need similar visas to 'work', even though they're not earning money from a US employer, taxable there, or have any intention in living in the US full-time.

So you've paid the fee, had your background checked and are a regular visitor to the States - meaning immigration should be a cinch compared to first-timers or non-regular visitors to the land of the free? Not so fast - visas usually guarantee more questions, and slower processing at border security, which is a double whammy.

And sometimes being in the visa system can land you with unexpected problems.

A very recent trip to Mexico for an international conference involved a change of planes in Atlanta from Dublin. Cue a stern look from the pre-clearance official at Dublin Airport and a swift trip downstairs to a holding area. A little-known part of our capital's airport, it's got the sort of ambience you'd find in an A&E waiting room, with grim-faced people waiting for their turn to be called. One was a dad with his children heading out on holiday, another a young woman meeting friends on a trip in San Francisco, others from foreign countries changing planes in Dublin.

All waiting to be called, and nervously looking at their watches.

Turns out - after a near-hour wait, and the clock ticking to my plane's departure, that my non-immigrant visa entitles me to work in America, but not change planes in America. Go figure.

Simple Irish logic prompted my response that if I wrote at some point later about the delights of Atlanta airport - the world's busiest - during my two-hour stay there, ergo I would be working. That's up to the supervisor, I was told. In the meantime, why didn't I have an Esta? Guys, I would jump at the chance to get one, except for the simple fact that I am ineligible for one.

Who says so? Try the US Embassy's web page in Dublin for starters. Factor in countless trips to the US (and returns home), plus my registration on the US Transport Security Administration's pre-check programme (ineligible to foreign citizens, but allowed to me in a one-off test-it-out programme in Newark Airport last year), and it's clear that there's a track record there.

Yup, a cast-iron guarantee that the two-hour trip to Atlanta will be just that.

To be fair, I was offered the chance to complete an Esta - and was given a walk of shame to the departure gate with an airline employee.

The normal processing time is 72 hours. I had 15 minutes. Within 13, and with the aircraft doors about to close, it was a case of mother's maiden name, father's name, passport image uploaded and $14 administration fee paid over my mobile.

Hey presto, the world's fastest Esta - as the plane door shut. Fifteen minutes later, and with some sensational rebooking speed by the helpful airline staff, we dashed to a flight a few gates away to JFK, with an onward connection to Mexico City.

The sting in the tail was that by missing the Atlanta flight, some computer algorithm deemed me as a no-show, so I wasn't allowed on the original return flight home via Paris with Aero Mexico (fantastic in-flight experience, so-so customer service). I was left stranded in Benito Juarez airport, in a city of 25 or so million people, with no Spanish, no ticket home, a bank card eaten in an ATM and no wifi or roaming left.

Luckily, back in Starbucks wifi land, I got the travel management team on the case to book a hotel and offer a tour of the city for as long as I was stuck there. While Donald Trump talks of walls with his southern neighbour, the US of A inadvertently gave me a longer stretch abroad to enjoy the Spanish Colonial delights and Aztec ruins of North America's biggest metropolis. And finally, a flight home via Amsterdam.

So, in a roundabout way, thank you, Mr President, for the leisurely ending to a business trip.

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