As a global consultant, I travel from time to time to the United States. When you go through customs, you are questioned to ensure that you are not “working” full-time in the United States without a green card or visa.
The basic rules for "working" in the United States when you interact with airport customs seem to be as follows:
- You are not allowed to be a "worker" without a visa or a green card
- To get either a visa or green card you have to be employable in the US for an extended period of time, e.g. permanently in the case of the green card and at least a year in the case of a visa
- Getting a NAFTA visa is based on a list of in demand occupations such as teacher, computer programmer or occupational therapist
- If you do the work in another country they will let you visit your customer in the united states on occasion. There is no specific rule that is spelled out but in my experience if you go down for a couple days in a month you are ok but if you are going down too often or stay too long the customs officer will start suspecting you are doing "work" in the United States.
- You are allowed to go into the United States on business if you state that you are in “Sales”, e.g. to close a deal.
So those are the basic rules, formulated decades ago before the Internet era. The rules clearly show a very mid 20th century view of "work":
- "Work" equals hours put in against a job requiring a very specific boxed in role. The worst thing to tell a customs officer is that you are a "business analyst", "trainer", "strategist", or "consultant". "Work" equals a job that an average customs officer had heard of, e.g. farmer or secretary. Try explaining what you do as an "Information architect" and you will be met with suspicion.
- "Goods" equals tangible imports like lumber, cars, etc. What if your "good" is a company's online strategy that they just paid you 150k to develop? What if your “good” is something that you can store on a USB key in your pocket?
- "Labor market" is based on the notion that you have to be in the country in order to work. It misses the point that I can do millions of dollars of knowledge work without any concept of borders.
- “Work” means working on premises. I can work just fine for a US company as long as I work for a Canadian company and ship goods into the United States. However, if I want to spend 2 weeks deploying the “product” on site, then I’m going to get questioned.
If the goal is to prevent labor from competing with local “workers”, these types of restrictions don’t really provide much support in the digital global knowledge working realm. Really, the rules basically are a restriction on face to face meetings but place no restriction on me being able to compete first hand with local resources from remote access points. Instead, they just put a barrier to innovation and physical collaboration as a complement to existing means of digital collaboration. It means that American companies with offices in other countries (Canada being a great example) need to obtain visas for employees who are jumping across the border for short term stays.
Surely, in the 21st century, we should update this approach and recognize that INCREASING global knowledge workers ability to collaborate across borders is essential to higher productivity, better solutions, and a better economy.
Given that reality, I would propose a very easy to obtain, very low restriction visa that would enable short term deployments (say 2-4 weeks) across the border. The governments on both sides could charge a fee and use a Nexus type approach to clearing consultants for the usual security risks. Once they have the pass, they could go down at any time to deploy solutions, meet with customers, and collaborate with stakeholders with the assumption that 80% of the work would still be done outside the country but that at crucial times there is a requirement for global knowledge workers to collaborate together. If the United States wants to be the centre of global innovation, it should enable these global workers to actively choose the US as their physical meeting hub for planning sessions, deployments to data centers, training, and collaboration sessions. This would create a high degree of network effect that would put it at a significant advantage over more restrictive countries such as China, Russia, Middle Eastern countries, etc.