I write this on the plane back home. What should have been my longest business trip ever (3 weeks) turned out to be my shortest (3 hours). The US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) sent me back because I am not allowed to give courses in the USA.
How can this be?
I was invited by LeanDog to give two courses in the USA, one in Columbus and one in Cleveland. I have done courses in countries all over Europe (both in and outside of the EU), and I was never refused entry. And I have done business in the US before, having been paid for some speaking engagements, and even having a US tax number, needed for the royalties for my book.
So, when I arrived in Detroit, explained the nature of my business, and was taken aside by the CBP for further questioning, it didn’t even occur to me that my courses were a problem. At first I thought it was because I was traveling on a 2nd passport. Or because my ESTA form had given me trouble at Amsterdam airport.
But no, the reason was that a self-employed independent trainer is not allowed to “work in the USA”. The government official (who was very kind to me by the way) explained that “the rules are unfortunately stacked against independent consultants”. He tried to find loopholes, but there weren’t any. It didn’t matter that I have a company and a US tax number. And so, until somebody changes the law, he said, he had to send me back home. Even if I applied for a work visa, I wouldn’t get it, he told me. Work visas are usually given to people working for bigger companies, with legal entities in the US. The easiest thing to do would be to hire an American person to give my courses in the USA.
Was I being naïve? Certainly, I am always naive. I have an innate belief that things will always turn out fine, and that somehow the world will bend around my will. For me such obstructions are only obvious when looking back, after stumbling over them. I knew that foreigners cannot just go and work in the USA. (It's exactly the same in Europe.) But I never realized that being invited and paid to do a simple 2-day course also counts as “work in the USA”.
I talked with dozens of people, both in the US and back home, about my scheduled courses. Nobody gave me any indication of what would happen. And I don’t blame anyone either. I bumped my head against a system. It hurts, but it happens. In fact, cases like mine happen all the time, a nice lady of the CBP told me. I thanked her for making me feel less stupid.
Fact is that my book is published in the USA, which means that its success is contributing (a little) to the treasury of the US government, but apparently this is not enough reason to allow me to give a course based on the book. Instead, this job should be picked up by a bigger company, or an American citizen.
It is ironic that part of my book is about getting rid of rules and bureaucracy, and doing things your own way. Sometimes, it seems, you can’t.
They asked me what my course was about. Maybe I should have left them a copy of the book.
p.s. I apologize to everyone in the US who had expected to see me. I was very much looking forward to this trip. I'm sure I will schedule a new one, with fewer misunderstandings.