Visa or American Express: Techcrunch, Brian Flanagan and the GNIB

Irish immigration authorities almost refused entry to a UX expert who came to Ireland to hire people, according to technology website TechCrunch. But what exactly happened?

Brian Flanagan, an American who works for NewContext.com, is a “UX expert”, according to the TechCrunch report. UX is an abbreviation of “User Experience”. Brian seems to be what used to be called an industrial designer in the good old days.

There’s no dispute that Flanagan does what it says on the tin. The NewContent.com website lists him as part of their “regional leadership” in Ireland.

Flanagan’s Dublin airport adventure first came to light lunchtime Saturday 3 March when a friend of his, Paddy Cosgrave, tweeted: Irish immigration at #dublinairport have just turned away a rather spectacular American tech guy as they don’t feel his job “makes sense”.

So what does TechCrunch say?

As tech becomes the world’s hottest subject and one of its few growth sectors, the international borders are straining as talent moves around the globe in search of the best startups and projects. European countries are increasingly alive to this, and we’ve seen huge efforts made by tech celebrities to lobby the White House over the Startup Visa concept. But it seems the news that the tech industry is now a big deal had not reached a certain immigration official at Dublin Airport today.

Not quite. Flanagan was held for a while as the immigration officials considered whether he should be allowed to enter Ireland, but was eventually allowed enter Ireland. He was not “turned away”.

An unnamed officer today turned away one of the world’s top UX guys from entering Ireland because they didn’t believe his “story”. The “story” turned out to be told by one Brian Flanagan – a name normally recognised as being Irish in extraction, but more to the point, Flanagan is currently working with one Joi Ito on a project.

Flanagan’s ethnic origin is indeed irrelevant. There are by some reckonings 70 million Americans who claim Irish extraction. It doesn’t mean they are Irish citizens, or entitled to enter the country at will.

What matters here is Flanagan’s “story”. More on that anon.

The problem was that the official simply did not buy the idea that UX is a “real job” and promptly sent him off to a waiting room where he was due to be deported back to the US from where he’d traveled.

This assertion appears to be based on another tweet from Paddy Cosgrave: The #techdeportation story at #dublinairport is unfolding. Immigration officers i think feel idea of a distributed workforce is bullshit. Or perhaps it was repeated by Flanagan himself when TechCrunch contacted him.

Despite telling officials he was in Ireland to hire people he was told bluntly: “You couldn’t be hiring people, you’re – like – 23!”

Similar information appeared Saturday in a Cosgrave tweet: Latest from #dublinairport Irish immigration don’t believe the American tech nerd is actually here to hire people – he’s too young!. However, the quote above seems to have been given to TechCrunch by Flanagan himself. FaS has no idea if an immigration officer said this. It’s quite possible the officer did indeed express astonishment at his youth. Let’s face it, 23 is a young age to have such responsibility. But FaS doubts his age was the reason Flanagan was refused entry and detained.

What matters is the timing. Flanagan was still in GNIB holding when this message was tweeted. At that point, he was telling immigration officials he was coming to Ireland for business, hiring people.

Brian told us that he is a long-term (5.5 years) resident of Ireland: first as a student, then as a co-founder and employee of a web app company (hypertiny.ie). His work visa expired at the end of October, and since then he’s been employed (as a U.S. citizen) by a new San Francisco-based company called New Context (newcontext.com – wholly owned by Joi Ito’s Digital Garage).

And here we come to the crux: “His work visa expired at the end of October

Part of his job description is the establishment of an Irish branch (growing to about 15 employees over the next few years).

He was in SF this past week meeting with his management team and execs, and on his way back to Ireland he was stopped at immigration.

As Brian told us via email: “I’m 23 years old and dress the part. But I figured it would take a phone call or two (or even just a Google search) to verify. For a gov’t pushing its “smart economy” so hard, it would seem like this is exactly the kind of tech investment they would want,” Brian told us.

They’re immigration officials. Specifically, they’re the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB). It’s not their job to attract investment. That’s someone else’s gig. All they care about is whether you have a right to enter the country. Which is a problem, if your work visa expired last October.

A Google search would presumably have pulled up the New Context People page, which shows Brian Flanagan under Regional Leadership for Ireland. Without a work visa. Perhaps it’s just as well the GNIB didn’t google him.

Sunday Times journalist John Mooney was one of the first to look into Flanagan’s story when it broke on twitter. Here are some of his contemporary tweets:

He’d said he was entering state for business, which requires a visa. The GNIB were fine once they knew what was happening.

Brain’s [sic] a very nice fella. Just made a verbal error. Told immigration he was here on business rather than pleasure. Its sorted now.

he made the mistake. gardai were fine once informed but he’s not here to hire anyone.

someone obviously called GNIB and alerted them to the misunderstanding. Or they’re all on twitter at the checkpoints

I think he was being overly friendly. Mentioned work trip when he had no visa. Just a misunderstanding. Happens all the time

no country in the world allows people to just arrive and set up businesses. This was no big deal. Gardai just doing job

I don’t know enough about it. In fairness to Brian, he admitted he made a mistake and he’s now on his way.

US citizens are visa exempt if they are holidaying here. Brian told GNIB that he was doing some business. Simple error.

I think he overstated the level of business he planned to engage in. Gardai did right thing.

The information in Mooney’s tweets corresponds with what this reporter established independently. FaS also understands that Flanagan has applied for a permanent work/residency visa, and the application is pending. To borrow  Mooney’s charitable phrasing, Brian Flanagan made an “verbal error” which led to a “misunderstanding” about his reasons for coming to Ireland.

However, there is a happy ending.

An ensuing Twitter storm erupted about Brian’s predicament, under hashtags #dublinairport and #innovationisland, roping in an Irish Senator in the process.

Within two hours, a senior politician put in a call in and had the hapless immigration officer’s decision reversed.

So to sum up, Brian Flanagan, who no longer has a valid work visa, arrived at Dublin airport. He got chatting with an immigration official, and told him he was here to hire people. The immigration official noted that Brian did not have a valid work visa and detained him. During this time, Flanagan still had his phone, and sent a message to his friend Paddy Cosgrave, who tweeted about his predicament. Cosgrave (and Flanagan) may also have contacted others. At least one Irish politician got involved in the case. At some point, either Flanagan amended his story to say he was not coming to Ireland to work, or the GNIB decided  it was time to develop selective amnesia. The GNIB agreed to allow him enter the country.

The “senior politician” is not named in the article, but immediately below this paragraph is a screenshot of a tweet by Labour Senator John Gilroy welcoming the decision to allow Flanagan enter Ireland. The implication is that Gilroy called someone in the Garda National Immigration Bureau. FaS contacted the senator to confirm what calls he made, if any. In rely he stated “I can confirm that I spoke to Brian when he was the airport, I spoke to authorities to assess situation.”  Gilroy told FaS he “spoke to authorities” to verify that Brian Flanagan was indeed at Dublin airport, as he had been informed.

And it’s worth pointing out that us Europeans often experience similar problems in U.S. (it happened to me only the other day when the guy didn’t believe I was a blogger going to TechCrunch Disrupt in SF – but they let me in eventually…).

Indeed. This writer has passed through US immigration several times. He can only wonder how Americans would react if a US Senator got involved if he was experiencing difficulties entering the USA without a valid visa.

2 comments for “Visa or American Express: Techcrunch, Brian Flanagan and the GNIB

  1. droid
    March 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    ‘Brian seems to be what used to be called an industrial designer in the good old days.’

    No, no and thrice no.

  2. Karl
    August 19, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    How would US citizens (Americans can be Canadian as well) would feel if they got stopped by Gardai while still in a US airport!

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