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It is my broad philosophy in life to be intolerant of prejudice and bigotry. I endeavor to see everyone as an individual and try not to make any assumptions based on the person’s color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, social status, body shape, intelligence or financial position. I will not claim to be 100% successful with this goal, but I do try very hard. I am very sympathetic to anyone who experiences abuse as a result of others’ prejudices. However, as I am white, male, heterosexual, British, agnostic, middle class, not fat, fairly smart and solvent, I have almost no experience of being on the receiving end of prejudice. This means that I have difficulty empathizing with a victim of prejudice. But that seems to be changing …

30 years ago, when I first joined Microtec Research [which I wrote about recently], I needed to visit the US for some training. This was my first trip across the Atlantic and a great adventure. To prepare for the visit, I needed to obtain a visa. This involved filling in forms, paying money and making a trip to London to go to the US embassy. This was a lot of hassle, but the visa was for 10 years and I guessed that I would repeat my visit from time to time, so it seemed like a sensible investment.

Over the years I have, indeed, made many return visits to the US – probably around 60. The visa did its job, but I never needed to renew it, as the Visa Waiver Program was introduced. This meant completing some simple paperwork on the flight over, which was fairly painless. In due course, it got better still, as they introduced ESTA [Electronic System for Travel Authorization]. Now I could complete an online form, pay $14, and have 2 years of document free travel to the US.

I was planning to travel to the US in early December for a conference and some internal meetings. My ESTA expired a while ago, so, last week, I applied for a new one. I did not leave it until the last minute, but doing it too far in advance is foolish, as the 2-year clock is ticking. Normally, the end of the application process is marked by a screen that grants the travel authorization and gives a reference number. This time it was different. It said that the process would be concluded within 72 hours and I should check back. When I checked back, I was advised that my travel authorization had been denied.

I was suspicious when a new question appeared on the ESTA application, asking whether I had visited certain countries since 1 March 2011. One of the countries was Syria, where we went on vacation in March 2011; I wrote about that trip at the time. Some further research revealed that there was a change in US law back in January which made visa-less travel to the US illegal for anyone who had been to Syria etc.

So, I needed to get a visa. Normally, it might have been possible – just – with the time available, if I cancelled my trip to Germany next week. However, I was advised that, because of interruptions to services caused by Thanksgiving, I would not have my visa in time for the US trip, so I had no choice but to cancel. I will continue with the visa application, but I will not be able to complete it until I have documentation about a specific [future] reason to visit the US.

It really feels bad being excluded from traveling where I want. I am used to being free to go anywhere without constraint. So, maybe, in future, I will have just a little empathy for people whose lives are restricted in various arbitrary ways due to factors beyond their control.

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