How not to get your conference speaker detained and deported

Take it from a naturalised citizen: your passport lives in the darkest corner of your psyche.

When the only thing keeping you from a 5 AM knock at the door is a little stamp in that little booklet, any threat to it becomes a chest-crushing descent into your night terrors.

It’s why a trivial administrative delay in processing a visa renewal, early on in my life in the UK, left me so unable to function that my boss sent me home. It’s why I was photographed at my British citizenship ceremony giggling like a lovesick schoolgirl. It’s why the pickpocketing of my passport and wallet earlier this year rendered me a hysterical mess in a very public hotel lobby. It’s why I sobbed again, this time with joy, when a Catalan policeman returned my passport to me the next day in a plastic evidence bag. When I returned home I held my breath walking through UK border control, irrationally convinced that my passport had been cloned and used in a crime in the handful of hours it was in unknown hands.

That little booklet does funny things to you.

What Rachel Nabors endured in March of this year, then, was a stomach-churning look into the abyss. The UI animations expert travelled from her home on the west coast of America to the UK to speak at a Smashing Magazine conference in Oxford. She never made it out of Heathrow. As she explained in this post, a question from a border control officer over the honorarium she would receive for her conference talk sent her into that darkest hell. She was pulled out of the queue, detained, interrogated, and deported the same day.

The issue was one that any immigrant to the UK knows all too well: the Home Office moves its own goalposts at its own whims, but does not communicate this to anyone. In this case, the information available on gov.uk – which both she and the conference organisers had poured over in detail – indicated that Rachel would not be required to secure a work visa in advance of her conference talk. There was nothing in that information, however, clarifying that the company running the conference had to be based in the UK. (Smashing Magazine is German, and is well known for running web industry conferences all over Europe.)

The Home Office’s failure to clarify matters in writing, of course, is never a permittable excuse for not knowing them. For Rachel, this meant that on the “Children of Men” side of Heathrow, border control officers couldn’t parse a German company paying an American speaker in British pounds as anything other than criminal activity. That’s how she ended up back in America less than 24 hours after she left, callously plopped into the next empty seat to New York despite living nearly 3,000 miles away from it.

Rachel filed a complaint, and this week the UK Border Force responded:

They have also updated the web page for US persons coming to the UK for professional reasons for less than six months, as well as the application guidelines for a permitted paid engagement visa.

For Rachel the damage is done, but for conference organisers and planners, there are obvious takeaways. If you are paying a non-EU speaker to speak at your UK conference, you need to get them a work permit, even if it’s just one conference talk on one day.

If you are not a UK-based organisation, you need to find a plan B. That should include contacting the UK Border Agency, clarifying what your speakers are required to do, and getting that all down in writing.

You need to ensure that your speakers have backup documentation to the hilt, including your own contact information and the clarification you have previously received from UKBA.

You should also have a reserve in your budget to cover emergency expenses, such as an unexpected long-haul flight, for conference speakers who run into difficulties that are not of their own making.

For all of us, of course, Rachel’s ordeal is further proof of the growing conflict between our 21st century profession and 20th century rules. We work in an industry that is borderless, where communication is instant, and where information flows across continents like water.

We get a little too used to that.

We think that we can move as easily as an overnight build, that our differences can be explained as fast as a Slack chat, and that pulling up a scanned letter on Evernote can make doors open.

What you have to understand is that to some in the wider world, our way of life is not just a curiosity. It’s a threat.

Borders are closing, information is being filtered, and doors are slamming. And there we are, flying around and talking and engaging and sharing and making awesome stuff and watching exasperated as the walls close in around us.

We are approaching the time when our industry needs to do something radical. At some point in the very near future we need to look up from our screens and make a loud public statement about what sort of world we want to live in.

It’s going to take action. Not coding, not a hack day, and not a Medium post. Angry, defiant, physical action.

But it’s not my problem, you think. It’s never your problem, is it. Not until it’s you who is called out of the queue.

Don’t wait until then.

“Neither of us had the backing of a Big Employer to come running for us. Where were the chatty American businessmen I stood next to in line at immigration? Perhaps they had companies like IBM and Microsoft backing them, legitimizing their travel and threatening big trouble for anyone interfering. Two women, a student and a self-employed web developer… Who would step up for us? A professor? A conference organizer? These thoughts raced through my mind as time wore on and I grew more and more tired. The adrenaline kept me awake. It was 8:25am. I had been 22 hours without sleep.”

About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.