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Italian band Soviet Soviet deported from US en route to SXSW

By | Published on Monday 13 March 2017

Soviet Soviet

Italian band Soviet Soviet posted a lengthy statement on Facebook on Friday after being refused entry to the US en route to SXSW. The band say that they were handcuffed and detained overnight after being deemed illegal immigrants because border officials said they had incorrect travel documentation.

The band had been travelling on the visa waiver programme ESTA, which allows citizens of nearly 40 countries to travel to the US for 90 days on business or leisure without requiring a visa. One of the stipulations of this programme, however, is that travellers must not earn money in the US during their stay.

The band were due to play SXSW, plus a number of other promotional performances, including a showcase at Seattle radio station KEXP. None of those events were paying the band, which is why they believed the ESTA paperwork was sufficient. Though when it comes to gigging Stateside it’s rarely that simple, which is one of the reasons why SXSW included the recently criticised terms in its artist contracts making international acts aware of the risks of performing at events outside its core programme.

Explaining their ordeal on the American border, the band write: “We left Italy headed towards the US with all necessary documents, passports and various declarations in which we clearly explained the purpose of our tour, confirming it is was strictly promotional and that we were in no way going to earn money from it or receive any form of payment”.

They go on: “We knew that if we were to receive any compensation we would have had to apply for work visas. This was not the case and the people we spoke to for information told us we would be fine. The point is that the control agents – who did a quick check on the concerts we informed them of – noticed that two of the venues were asking for entry fees and this was enough to convince them that we needed work visas instead of an ESTA”.

It took four hours to reach the decision to deport the three members of the band, they say. “We accepted this decision as it seemed final at that point. They took our digital fingerprints and took mugshots of us for their file. They confiscated our cell phones and we were denied the possibility of contacting our families and loved ones. Around 10:30pm, two prison officers frisked us, handcuffed us and brought us to jail in a police car. We spent the night in jail and had been escorted there as though we were three criminals”.

Commenting on the situation, and the temporary jailing of the band, The Department of Homeland Security told NPR: “When a traveller is deemed inadmissible, [Customs And Border Protection] makes every effort to return the traveller without delay. CBP does not have an overnight detention facility at the airport. Therefore, it is standard procedure for any traveller who is deemed inadmissible and is awaiting return travel to be taken to a detention centre until return travel is available”.

It continued: “According to CBP policy, it is standard procedure to restrain a traveller who is being transported to a detention facility. The use of restraints on detainees during transport is in a manner that is safe, secure, humane, and professional. It is the responsibility of officers to ensure that the need and level of restraints used is consistent with the operational office’s policies and procedures. At no time are restraints used in a punitive manner or in a manner that causes detainees undue pain”.

Some have suggested that increased immigration controls under the Donald Trump administration are causing these problems – and concerns over the Trump government’s position on immigration certainly contributed to SXSW’s long-held contract terms being criticised this year – though what happened to Soviet Soviet isn’t entirely unusual.

Each year, a number of bands find themselves unable to enter the US under similar circumstances. And, commenting on the band’s statement, lawyer Matthew Covey of Tamizdat, which works with international musicians entering the US to perform, said on Facebook that the band were at fault.

“Soviet Soviet was doing precisely what the much maligned SXSW invitation letter was attempting to caution them against doing”, he wrote. “As monstrous as reports of CBP’s handling of Soviet Soviet sound, it is clear that these artists were entering the US intending to violate US law. They were scheduled to play non-showcase events, and even after all last week’s fuss, they still did not understand: not getting paid does not mean you don’t need a visa”.

However, he noted that the situation does highlight that there is a problem with the current system, adding: “What happened to Soviet Soviet happens to some performer every week of every month and has been happening for 25 years. So something is not working and needs to change”.

Writing on classical music website Hello Stage last week, Brian Taylor Goldstein of GG Arts Law also wrote about issues for artists travelling to the US on non-work visas. He noted that, while the visa rules haven’t changed, more detailed scrutiny of documents by border officials in the wake of Trump’s increased controls on immigration did mean that more artists were being caught out.

“We are already receiving reports of artists being held and detained for hours upon entering the US to determine whether or not they are performing”, he wrote, days before Soviet Soviet set off for the US. “Even artists entering as visitors for the purpose of attending a conference or ‘performing a showcase’ are being pulled aside and, in many cases, being refused entry. Artists entering with B-1/B-2 visas or through the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA) are being pulled aside the moment they say that they are ‘entertainers’, ‘performers’, or ‘artists'”.

He continued: “Everyone needs to understand and accept that artists cannot perform on visitor visas (B-1/B-2) or through the Visa Waiver Program (ESTA) regardless of whether or not they are being paid and regarding of whether or not tickets are sold. Except in the most narrowly defined circumstances, US immigration law has always defined ‘work’ as it pertains to artists, as any kind of performance. Artists denied entry on the basis of fraud, will have a denied entry on their record, impeding future visas and travel”.