Update, 12:15 a.m. Saturday, March 11: Italian rock band Soviet Soviet was scheduled to perform next week at the South by Southwest Music Festival, but according to a statement from the band posted on Facebook, they were forced to cancel their festival showcases and a few other promotional appearances when they were denied entry to the U.S. and detained on Wednesday. They were deported the following day.
According to the band, when they arrived in Seattle, they provided passport control officers with documentation that they were traveling under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, a letter from their American record label declaring that the band was in the country for promotional purposes only and their letter of invitation from SXSW.
The three band members say they were detained and individually interrogated by customs agents. During this time, they say, they were able to put the agents in touch with the American owner of their record label, who pleaded their case, but after four hours of interrogation, the customs agents decided to send them back to Italy.
“They declared us illegal immigrants even if our intention was by no means to look for work in the United States nor never go back to Italy,” the band said in the statement.
A key detail in Soviet Soviet’s statement posted to Facebook appears to be the following: “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.”
Those two venues, as it happens, were not in Austin nor part of the band’s South by Southwest agenda. In addition to the Seattle KEXP radio promotional performance mentioned in the Facebook statement, Soviet Soviet also had booked three other shows en route to Austin: one in Seattle and two in Southern California.
Archived web pages for those events indeed show that shows in Seattle, at Kremwerk, and in Los Angeles, at Echoplex, carried cover charges of $10 to $13. (A show in Long Beach, Calif., was advertised as a free event.)
The band insisted in its Facebook statement that “We had not agreed on any payment whatsoever,” though their statement made no references to the non-KEXP Seattle appearance or the Southern California shows.
The band says after they were denied entry to the U.S., their cell phones were confiscated before they were able to notify their families of their situation and they were handcuffed and taken to jail. “We spent the night in jail and had been escorted there as though we were three criminals. The following day, after having completed all jail-related procedures (mugshots, declaration of good health and signatures), two other agents came to get us,” the band’s statement says.
The band says they were handcuffed and driven by police car back to the same customs office where their ordeal began. They were booked on a flight back to Italy, and, they say, finally had their cell phones returned roughly an hour before the flight was scheduled to take off.
Their statement says they were “treated like criminals.” It also emphasizes that the band understood their visa prevented them from earning money while in the U.S. and they had no intention of violating the visa terms.
KEXP staffers reached out to Homeland Security who maintained the band did not have the proper visa. When they asked “whether the use of prison cells and handcuffs is standard operating procedure for musicians arriving without a proper visa,” they received the following statement about Customs and Border Protection policy:
“When a traveler is deemed inadmissible, CBP makes every effort to return the traveler without delay. CBP does not have an overnight detention facility at the airport. Therefore, it is standard procedure for any traveler who is deemed inadmissible and is awaiting return travel to be taken to a detention center until return travel is available. According to CBP policy, it is standard procedure to restrain a traveler 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.”
In a very detailed Facebook post related to last week’s controversy about immigration language in the SXSW contract, immigration lawyer Matthew Covey, who’s co-presenting the Contrabanned: #MusicUnites showcase next Friday at the fest, explained that artists are able to use the Visa Waiver Program, to perform at SXSW without employment visas “under a narrow exception to the law carved out for performances that are effectively auditions… ‘bona fide industry showcases.'”
“The problem however is that the applicability of the ‘showcase exception’ to SXSW is something of a legal grey area, given that SXSW is kind of an audition, but it’s also kind of a party,” he wrote. “The vast majority of artists who enter the U.S. to perform at SXSW without employment visas do so successfully, but this is because U.S. Department of State and Customs and Border Protection are—so far—playing ball. Presumably they recognize that SXSW is in the interests of American commerce, and poses little threat to American security or labor interests”
On Monday, we talked with Covey via phone from his office in NYC, where he runs the nonprofit Tamidzat, that assists international performing artists with U.S. visas. We asked if artists are having more problems at the borders since President Trump issued a travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries in January.
“In the immigration law world there’s a lot of discussion going on as we’re trying to get a handle of what’s actually going on at Customs and Border Protection right now,” he said. “As far as we know there’s no particular directive that they need to be increasing scrutiny.”
Covey said the kind of interrogations we’ve been hearing about recently are not new. “People being forced to open their cell phones, open their computers, well that happens all the time,” he said. “That’s been going on as long as people have had smart phones. The fact that it’s getting attention now is great, because it was never very cool and they shouldn’t be doing it except under extreme situations.”
He said that since 9/11 these things have not been uncommon with artists he’s assisted who are traveling from the Middle East.
“The stories about people who wouldn’t be in the profile being hassled, those suggest to me that something is going on, or that there is a heightened scrutiny,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone can prove it yet. I don’t think there are statistics about it, but it does seem like there is a heightened scrutiny…Is that just individual officers deciding to take matters into their own hands?… It’s strange and very, very concerning but we don’t know what it is yet.”
We have reached out to SXSW for comment.