Rami Ismail was frustrated. His #1ReasonToBe panel at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco had run into a snag: Half of his panelists couldn’t make it because their visas had been denied by the U.S. State Department.
Ismail, a Muslim Dutch-Egyptian game developer, is co-founder of indie studio Vlambeer and is most famous for games like Ridiculous Fishing and Nuclear Throne. But in the game development world, he’s known as the guy pushing for worldwide diversity in game making. For years, Ismail has traveled the world encouraging underrepresented developers to speak up and let their voices be heard through gaming.
“I had expected a single rejection, at most — a developer from Syria — and I had ensured proper backup in case that fell through,” Ismail told me in February. “Sadly, I had three rejections, which means with just over a month to the event, I have to find two new speakers.”
As GDC approached, Ismail posted updates on Facebook asking if anyone could contribute. Soon, the fourth of his six panelists was prevented from entering the United States. #1ReasonToBe was quickly turning into #NotEnoughPanelistsToExist.
“I’ve handled quite some rejections before, but they’ve definitely increased in frequency during this administration,” Ismail said.
The major change in the past two years has been the election of President Donald Trump. In January 2017, exactly one week into his administration, he signed an executive order barring the entry of immigrants and visa holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. The sloppily executed order caught the State Department and immigration services off guard. It also led to a number of lawsuits challenging its validity.
Within days, a federal judge declared that President Trump’s order was religiously motivated, and therefore unconstitutional; the ruling blocked significant portions of the ban from taking effect. Even then, it was clear: This administration was going to start preventing more people from coming to the United States.
The #1ReasonToBe panel is off to a devastating start. Everyone with a hand raised fulfills one or more of the reasons that speakers who were supposed to be at this panel had their visas rejected. pic.twitter.com/CVduIEwjOU
— Carolyn Petit (@carolynmichelle) March 22, 2018
Following the court ruling that defanged the initial travel ban, the administration replaced it with a new executive order that President Trump signed in March 2017, calling it a “watered down, politically correct version” of the original. But a federal judge blocked that one, too, ruling a week later that the revised travel ban was meant to achieve the same outcome as its predecessor — and that it was still based on anti-Muslim sentiment. A Supreme Court ruling eventually allowed the second ban to proceed, and after it expired in September, the government issued a third travel ban that the Supreme Court approved in December after additional legal challenges had blocked it.
That third ban is indefinite, and remains in effect for travelers from six majority-Muslim countries — Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — who do not have “bona fide relationships” with U.S. individuals or businesses. It also blocks some people from North Korea and Venezuela from entering the U.S.
At the moment, evidence is still light on whether nonimmigrant visas for business (B1) are being rejected at a higher rate during the Trump administration than in years past. In 2014, the U.S. saw 4.7 million B1 visitors, with 4.9 million and 5.1 million in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
The Department of Homeland Security has yet to release statistics for all of 2017, but during the first three quarters of the year, 4 million visitors entered the United States for business purposes. When fourth-quarter results are revealed later this year, the number of visitors is likely to be either lower than or on par with 2014 figures.
Unsurprisingly, certain countries had very low overall nonimmigrant admissions for the first three quarters of 2017, like Afghanistan (2,560), Iran (16,692), Iraq (13,294), Libya (1,130), Yemen (2,893) and Morocco (24,531). Those totals pale in comparison even to a country like Pakistan, which has been plagued with terrorism and extremist ideologies but produced 84,195 nonimmigrant arrivals. Pakistan was also a country not mentioned in either of the two travel bans.
I wanted to talk with individuals who had their visas rejected. I asked Ismail to allow me to speak to some of his now-former panelists. He was hesitant to connect me to them. His panelists feared that speaking to the media in any capacity would lead to retaliation by the State Department when applying for future visas.
“Consular officers will review all new applications independently and encourage applicants to reapply when they can demonstrate that their personal situation has changed and they can show further convincing evidence of ties to their home country,” Josh Waggener, press attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, told me. “A visa applicant’s complaints about prior refusals — whether stated to the consular officer or to the media — is not material to the case.”
On his way to GDC 2016, Iraqi-Scottish game developer Malath Abbas was denied entry to the United States because he had visited family in Iraq a few months prior. After the media caught wind, Abbas was granted entry.
We cannot paint with a broad brush when discussing immigration. Each applicant is considered on a case-by-case basis. One traveler might not make enough money, and the State Department might fear that they would remain in the U.S. after their visa expired Another might be a freelancer, and therefore wouldn’t have a job to tie them down to their country. The State Department makes an evaluation in an effort to prevent people from overstaying their visa.
“Our immigration law requires consular officers to view every visa applicant as an intending immigrant until the applicant is able to demonstrate otherwise,” Waggener said. “Applicants have a responsibility to demonstrate that they have strong ties to a residence abroad that would compel them to leave the United States at the end of their temporary stay.”
Until we have official data from the federal government, individual accounts can help illustrate whether the U.S. is becoming increasingly hostile to certain business travelers. Ismail said that he’s been seeing rejections for individuals from countries like Syria, Iran, Yemen and Morocco. But he was surprised to see a Ukrainian national — one who had visited San Francisco multiple times in the past — be barred from entering the U.S. as well.
“The meeting at the embassy was the same week that the new president [was inaugurated],” Halil Arafan, an indie game designer from Morocco, said. “So apparently things were changing fast from all the friends that are more familiar with the process and inner workings of visas.”
Arafan is working on his first PC game in Casablanca. He doesn’t make a lot of money at the moment, but studied development in France and has worked for studios like Quantic Dream and the now-defunct Ubisoft Casablanca. He was offered a scholarship by the Train Jam diversity program, a 52-hour game jam that takes place on a GDC-bound train from Chicago to San Francisco. He was excited to go, but was crushed when his visa was denied due to his financial situation.
“In cases of younger applicants who may be less established, consular officers may look at the applicants’ specific intentions, family situations, and long-range plans and prospects within his or her country of residence,” Waggener said. “Each case is examined individually and is accorded every consideration under the law.”
Global Game Jam (GGJ) is a nonprofit dedicated to helping developers in underserved areas to get more game development experience. GGJ works with GDC on scholarships to fly in overseas developers to help give them access to the resources the conference offers. GGJ hosts game jams in countries like Egypt, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
“The trip to GDC is economically prohibitive. Visa applications cost money. If you don’t live where the office is, that even costs more money,” Seven Siegel, executive director for Global Game Jam, said. “It is way easier to get a visa approved if you make way more money. You can grease the wheels of the cogging machine that is visa applications.”
Siegel was unwilling to discuss whether he thinks GDC should move to a different country, or even a different city within the United States. But moving to France, England or Germany, countries that have less stringent immigration processes, could facilitate the attendance of developers from more parts of the world. Even moving the event away from San Francisco, currently the most expensive city in the United States, could help not only the economy of a smaller town, but make it easier for cash-strapped indie developers — who tend to sleep in overcrowded hostels during the convention — to attend.
“The language of games is supposed to be universal. But for many parts of the world, the world itself is not universal.”#1ReasonToBe stands as the only panel that manages to make me cry in a conference room. @tha_rami and the 6 amazing panellists. pic.twitter.com/mUAg3fGBVn
— Anisa Sanusi GDC (@studioanisa) March 23, 2018
“I was rejected by the U.S. embassy just last week,” Taha Rasouli, an Iranian game developer and head of the International Game Developers Association’s Iran chapter, said. “I was applying for the Business/Conference Visa in order to attend GDC and I was rejected right away in less than two minutes.”
Iranian game developers have seen the most scrutiny from U.S. immigration services. The U.S. has clashed with Iran over its nuclear program, which has led to crippling sanctions. During the Obama administration, the U.S brokered a deal to lift sanctions if Iran made major concessions regarding its nuclear program. It was a breath of fresh air for Iran, which has a large unemployed youth population. But the Trump administration is fighting the deal, and aims to reverse it. This is making things increasingly difficult for younger Iranians who want to connect and engage with the world.
“We have more than 250 studios making games — mostly mobile. There are a lot of talented developers and there are a lot of games specially on mobile. But we are falling behind the world very fast,” Rasouli said. “Because of the sanctions and all these bans on Iran, we nearly don’t have access to anything. We have to invent the wheel overtime and we have to experience everything the hard way. No publisher deals with us. Google Play doesn’t have a store for Iran. Apple doesn’t let our applications […] be published in [the] App Store. If they find out the app is Iranian or is in Farsi they just reject it. Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony do not sell the console dev kits to us. No publisher is willing to buy a game.”
Art can only thrive if new ideas are there to give it life. Video games are no different. There are myriad voices that want to tell their own stories from their own countries and experiences, where the hero isn’t some guy from America in his mid-30s gallivanting around the world.
Congrats @tha_rami and all speakers at #1ReasonToBe. The denied visas were a terrible thing that made even more clear that it is everyone’s responsibility to do what’s in their power to level the field and make this industry and the world more welcoming for everyone pic.twitter.com/FvkMpcoxOL
— Gabriel Dal Santo (@gabdalsanto) March 22, 2018
“The Game Developers Conference is dedicated to offering a platform for all game development professionals, both domestic and international,” a GDC representative said. “GDC remains committed to welcoming attendees from all over the world and sends formal visa invitation letters that explain what the event is and that we’re looking forward to hosting non-U.S. attendees. We’ll continue to advocate for all attendees to be given access to our event.”
Ultimately, the brunt of responsibility falls on the artists to find their own way and make things happen. But that will take time. Having access to events like GDC can jump-start processes, truncating yearlong ordeals down to months.
And for Ismail, the son of an Egyptian immigrant, who was afforded the opportunity to do what he loves because of where he was born, it pains him to see developers around the world recede from GDC, feeling scared.
“It also means these stories don’t get told with the humanity they deserve.”
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