Videogame developers from across the globe descended on San Francisco this week during the Game Developers Conference, but the brash sway in the American political climate since President Trump’s election didn’t allow all to attend. Due to his travel ban, focused on limited travel of citizens from a handful of mostly Muslim nations, multiple developers from the affected countries had their visas denied at a higher frequency than past years.
The issue came to the forefront at the conference during developer Rami Ismail’s #1ReasonToBe panel, which was constructed to increase the presence and representation of developers from around the world. According to Polygon, as GDC approached, four of his six planned speakers were forced to cancel their appearances due to being denied entry into the country by the U.S. government. “I had expected a single rejection, at most — a developer form Syria,” said Ismail, adding, “I’ve handled some rejections before, but they’ve definitely increased in frequency during the administration.”
Although Trump’s initial attempt at implementing a travel ban last January was thwarted by federal courts, his second one was approved by the Supreme Court and a third travel ban was made indefinite in December 2017. Critics of the policy have noted that it discriminates against Muslims wishing to immigrate or visit the U.S., noting the low amount of nonimmigrant admissions from predominantly Muslim nations to the country in the first three quarters of 2017.
The tightening of the satisfactory conditions for visa approval has made it much harder for those in a career field as unique and deconstructed as game development within these nations. People can be denied visas based on not having a high enough income, not having an established career that would deter them from remaining in the U.S. after their visa expires or their nation’s ties to America politically, even if their home nation doesn’t fall under the eye of the travel ban. “Our immigration law requires consular officers to view every visa applicant as an intending immigrant until the applicant is able to demonstrate otherwise,” said press attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco.
Complications arise when the nature of being a videogame developer in a foreign nation that doesn’t house as large a market as the U.S. does. Most developers, such Taha Rasouli of Iran, work on a freelance basis, which doesn’t constitute the kind of established career the State Department would approve as enough to keep a visitor from staying in the country past their visa’s expiration. The condition of income is also problematic as the affected usually don’t make the amount of money the State Department would deem sufficient to both pay for visa applications and ensure the return of any nonimmigrant visitor. Even when organizations such as the Train Jam diversity program offer scholarships to developers who couldn’t otherwise afford to travel to GDC, the State Department still looks at their personal income and quickly denies their visa applications.
It’s a melting pot of circumstances and issues that has frustrated Ismail for some time. He develops videogames, but spends a large amount of his time travelling the world and empowering less-known voices in the development community to make their voices heard and express new cultural viewpoints that are valuable to the world of games as a whole. The fiasco surrounding the turnover in his panel’s roster left him feeling upset that foreign voices are being further silenced simply because of where they make their home. “It also means these stories don’t get told with the humanity they deserve,” said Ismail.