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U.S. Customs continue to turn away SXSW performers

(Members of Massive Scar Era (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/massivescarera/)
(Members of Massive Scar Era (Photo: https://www.facebook.com/massivescarera/)

This weekend, we reported on the ordeal of Italian rock band Soviet Soviet, whose members were interrogated, arrested, and ultimately deported after attempting to enter the U.S. in order to play at the upcoming SXSW. Now, Billboard reports that even more international artists are facing a similar (if slightly less draconian) fate, getting turned away from the country when they show up on their way to perform.

The problems seem to stem from the status of the B tourism visa, a document that non-paid bands have used for years in order to enter the United States to network, find representation, and perform. But SXSW’s web site notes that travel into the U.S. on a B-1 is “often granted but not guaranteed,” and a recent crackdown has now caused members of Canadian-Egyptian heavy metal band Massive Scar Era, plus London-based drummer Yussef Kamaal, to be turned away as well. Travel officials are demanding that bands secure a P-1 performing visa instead, despite SXSW providing artists with a letter stating that the B-1 is “appropriate when bands will be engaged only in showcasing at SXSW” because “it is not labor for hire; rather, it involves unpaid demonstrations of skills that include composition, practice and performances.”

Members of Massive Scar Era have been posting about the incident on social media. Among other issues, members noted that the band’s Canadian-born, First Nations-heritage bassist was also denied entry, making this the rare musical festival story in which someone is forced to invoke the American-Canadian Jay Treaty of 1795. (The bassist was reportedly told he’d need to provide “a DNA test” in order to prove his status.)

Officials for the festival—which recently faced its own immigration controversy, eventually removing contract language that would have allowed organizers to leverage deportation as a threat against international bands that tried to play outside shows—have attempted to contact and sort things out with U.S. Customs. But agents have apparently been unresponsive, with Billboard reporting that there are government worries that bands will use SXSW as a platform for a protest event.

UPDATE: SXSW has released an official statement clarifying the situation, courtesy of entertainment and immigration law expert and SXSW immigration counsel Jonathan Ginsburg:

U.S. immigration law allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. using a B visa or the Visa Waiver Program to conduct business, but not to render services. The U.S. Department of State, accordingly, has long recognized that entertainment groups may enter the U.S. to “showcase,” but not to perform under contract with U.S. venues or other employers.

SXSW is working in concert with other U.S. organizations in an effort to ensure that both the State Department and CBP continue to treat showcasing as a valid activity in B or Visa Waiver status. In the meantime, SXSW remains confident that the vast majority of consular officers and CBP officials understand and respect the need for, and the principle of, showcasing at promotional events such as the official SXSW event.

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