Immigration vs TrustedHousesitters: Unpaid house sitting on your travels
TrustedHousesitters has known about what happened at LAX minutes after it happened. I emailed them to say I’d been refused entry to the United States because I was told I had the incorrect visa to undertake unpaid house sitting on my sight-seeing holiday/vacation. TrustedHousesitters responded to this email within minutes—their community manager said she was sorry to hear this and asked for details. There wasn’t a lot of time between when I got my phone back and having to switch it to airplane mode, but the last email I received on the evening of 30 June 2022 said: “It really is about who you get on the day [at immigration] and how they CHOOSE to interpret the traveler’s purpose.”
I didn’t hear from TrustedHousesitters again until I went to The Guardian. The Guardian story was published two or three weeks after I told TrustedHousesitters I was being deported, but, now, all of a sudden, they really wanted to talk about it. Their community manager tried calling me. She texted me. She tried to call me on WhatsApp. She even messaged me from two different numbers on WhatsApp. Then I saw an email come through: “We became aware of the full facts of your recent border situation just this morning through the Guardian article.” Were they reaching out to see how I was faring? I don’t know. As the weeks went on, they’d email me each time a new story came out. “I’ve just picked up the Mama Mia article and would really like to assure you that we did respond when the story first surfaced, we provided the SMH journalist with a statement which she did not publish, in it we expressed how appalled we were at your treatment etc.,” one of their emails read.
When I finally called TrustedHousesitters back, that same community manager began with a story about the time she encountered an immigration-related inconvenience driving from Canada to Washington state. Despite the incompetence of border patrol staff, our experiences aren’t similar at all. The TrustedHousesitters community manager was granted entry to the USA. I wasn’t. I was detained. She wasn’t. I would think her ESTA—offered to citizens/eligible nationals of a Visa Waiver Program country—remained intact. My ESTA went from approved to “Travel Not Authorized”. The conversation began to move away from her experience to mine and that’s when I said I didn’t blame TrustedHousesitters for what happened. TrustedHousesitters weren’t the ones who refused me entry to the United States. It was US immigration who sent me straight back to Australia.
That’s how I felt four months ago, but now I’m mad at TrustedHousesitters. I’m mad at TrustedHousesitters because they haven’t done anything to address the underlying issue. They’re actively promoting international house and pet sitting as a win-win-win situation, but most members don’t know they’re breaking the law*. US immigration doesn’t care no money changes hands in arrangements facilitated through TrustedHousesitters—it’s what the traveller’s doing that’s the issue. Feeding a cat, as I have learned, is a form of ‘productive activity’ and any kind of productive activity requires the traveller to have a work visa.
TrustedHousesitters attempted to draw attention to the problems I experienced at LAX with Our Australian member’s story. “Madolline is a hugely valued member … we feel it’s important to give additional background to Madolline’s story and international travel.” TrustedHousesitters wasn’t in any position to give context because they didn’t know anything other than what I emailed them about while waiting to board my 15-hour flight to Sydney. “The Information on abortion is new and has only come to our attention as a result of this article … we will of course offer our full support, as we do to all of our members.” The abortion element is irrelevant here—paying members need to know they can be deported for using TrustedHousesitters on their travels. This thread was locked (closed) by TrustedHousesitters after two days.
It was early August when TrustedHousesitters wanted me to hear about their “immigration update”. I remember thinking maybe they’d fixed this mess for me. They hadn’t. The “immigration update” isn’t going to change anything for me or any other TrustedHousesitters member who finds themselves in airport detention. TrustedHousesitters threw some letters together for sitters to show to UK, US and Canadian immigration officials. These letters don’t have anyone’s name, position title or signature attached to them, and I’d be too embarrassed to show this letter to any of the officers I dealt with at LAX. The phone number provided in the letter—the one TrustedHousesitters advises immigration calls for further clarification—is one that seems to go unanswered at the best of times. “The immigration specialists have concluded that members can travel internationally to sit and that they are not in breach of any visa conditions,” their email dated 8 August 2022 read.
I started to get annoyed because TrustedHousesitters had managed to escape the bulk of the media attention my story was getting. Using TrustedHousesitters as a visitor to the United States (even though Montreal, Canada, was my final destination) was the reason immigration wouldn’t let me enter the country. I wasn’t sent back to Australia because of anything to do with my abortion status despite how some people were choosing to interpret stories they’d read online. traveller.com.au hit the nail on the head when they ran Beware: Simple mistakes that can get you deported or refused entry to other countries, but it wasn’t something I was allowed to discuss on the TrustedHousesitters community forum. Two different moderators—on two separate occasions—stopped me from talking about my experience. Most discussions on the TrustedHousesitters forum get locked when the company starts getting painted in a bad light, and every thread and reply posted by a new member must be manually approved by one of the moderators.
That’s when I took to posting about what happened to me on the TrustedHousesitters Facebook page. Paying members have a right to know this could happen to them and TrustedHousesitters wasn’t doing much to educate them about it. TrustedHousesitters hid all my comments and ended up deleting one of their own posts—one where they had to acknowledge a member’s dog died while in the care of a TrustedHousesitters sitter whose account ended up being suspended—after I bumped it. I got the impression this was another problem TrustedHousesitters didn’t want getting out back then and they didn’t want people being reminded of it three years later.
I started tagging TrustedHousesitters on Twitter and Instagram after they blocked me on Facebook. I can still see their Facebook posts, but I can’t comment on them. They mustn’t have liked me pointing out the major flaw in their business model because it wasn’t long before I was blocked on Twitter and Instagram. I’m still able to comment using my cat sitting Facebook page and my cat’s Instagram account, but my days are numbered.
TrustedHousesitters decided it was now time to play the “misunderstanding” card. In response to my Trustpilot review, one of their staff said US Customs and Border Protection just didn’t get what house sitting is about. For such a simple “misunderstanding”, the consequences of revealing you’re travelling on the app are pretty significant. My ESTA has been cancelled forever and I can no longer enter the United States in a tourist capacity. My options for re-entering the United States include:
- Getting a work visa, but who’s going to sponsor someone for unpaid house and cat sitting?
- Winning the green card lottery. Unlikely to happen and I’m not sure I’d want to permanently relocate to the US.
- Marrying a US citizen.
I can’t even transit through the country anymore.
While it was okay to silence me in public, TrustedHousesitters has continued to email me each time they get mentioned in the media. Their community manager was seeking “irrefutable proof of the reason your ESTA was revoked” after I went to iNews. The iNews travel editor is the only journalist I spoke with who approached a lawyer for comment as part of their coverage and I’m glad they did. I was able to arrange a half hour call with that very same lawyer—she said the only surprising part in all of this was the abortion question.
Even though TrustedHousesitters were the ones who advised me to seek advice from a US immigration lawyer, they were quick to change their tune when one weighed in saying house sitting is “not appropriate for ESTA travel”. An email I received from the TrustedHousesitters community manager inferred our relationship had soured: “Where this is now reminds me a little bit of a divorce situation … As soon as the suits/lawyers/media step in that’s when situations are in danger of becoming toxic … which is very sad, unfortunate and often completely unnecessary.”
One of my last dealings with TrustedHousesitters—aside from the very, very last email I received from their community manager where she tried to gaslight me and likened me to a monster for emailing an animal rescue they work with—is when Queen Elizabeth II died. I’d reiterated my request for TrustedHousesitters to update their international house sitting advice page. I wanted this update posted to all their social media accounts and on their community forum, and sent as a standalone email to members. “Today was a bank holiday in the UK due to the Queen’s Funeral … our team was unavailable,” the community manager stated. The one and only time I spoke with TrustedHousesitters on the phone, I suggested they put a banner across their website drawing people’s attention to the risks of international house and pet sitting. The banner would link off to a webpage detailing how countries like the United States consider unpaid house and pet sitting work, and how it’s not suitable for visitors on a tourist visa. Pet owners need to be informed of the risks, too. They probably haven’t given any thought to what they’re going to do if their sitter is refused entry to the country. “Members are fully informed about the information that is available to them … There really isn’t a need to post [this information] on any external channels as this information is only pertinent to our members,” I was told. “The number of members across external channels is really very small … and posting any information would simply not reach a significant number of our members.” If the TrustedHousesitters social media following is so minuscule, why did I get barred for trying to educate such a small amount of people about the risks of using TrustedHousesitters on their overseas travels? Note: TrustedHousesitters’ take on “very small” equates to 256,000-odd people ‘liking’ them on Facebook and 100,000 followers on Instagram.
I want to make it clear I never asked TrustedHousesitters for money. Money, however, is everything to share economy companies like TrustedHousesitters. TrustedHousesitters cares more about money coming in** than they do about their “community”. The pets TrustedHousesitters sitters are tasked with caring for also take a backseat to profits as evidenced in that now-deleted Facebook post addressing the death of a member’s dog. If TrustedHousesitters cared about their members, they’d update their international house sitting advice in light of what happened to me at LAX. They’d offer support instead of hoping members grow tired of posting about their problems and they’d communicate the massive change to the house sitting application process instead of casually mentioning it on their highly moderated, not very popular community forum. Most of the 120,000 or so TrustedHousesitters members don’t know about this change and they don’t know they can be deported either.
*Foreigners need a work visa, not ESTA, to house and pet sit on their travels. Citizens and permanent residents of the United States can do unpaid house and pet sitting through TrustedHousesitters without violating immigration law.
**TrustedHousesitters received $10-million in funding from UK investment firm Rockpool. Rockpool expects TrustedHousesitters will continue to grow their membership base in the United States, with a focus on California (the state I was deported from).