Visas, Travel and Politics? It’s Complicated

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

On Wednesday March 8, 2017, upon touching down in Seattle, the Italian band, Soviet Soviet, was questioned and held overnight in jail before being ushered to a plane that took them back to Italy. The three musicians were traveling under The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program, an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

The ESTA VWP is an agreement between the United States and 38 other countries and assists in determining eligibility to allow travel to the U.S. as tourists or for business for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. Along with Italy, Countries that participate in this program include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the U.K. Since 2015, travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are not eligible to enter the U.S. under the ESTA program.

The Artist Side

Although the ESTA VWP is often used by bands and artists when entering the country to perform or appear at unpaid promotional events, and Soviet Soviet had obtained its ESTA VWP clearance before boarding a plane to the U.S., along with a letter from their U.S. record label stating their intentions, the agents grew skeptical about those stated intentions, especially since the band was planning to perform at SXSW and at another gig charging admission to the shows.

“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,” the band noted, in a statement posted online.

“We were able to have the agents speak directly to the owner of our American label without any success, however. After almost four hours of questions, they told us their verdict. They had decided to deport us back to Italy and deny us entry into the United States. 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.” [Note: The band’s Facebook page listed a “U.S. Tour” with additional shows in southern California and Seattle, which clearly take the distinct appearance of “paid” performances. —ed.]

Brian Taylor Goldstein, the immigration attorney who is well-known for his work with foreign touring artists, advises that, due to stricter screening under the new administration immigration policies, officers have the power “to deny entrance to any artist from any nationality for any reason. To what extent this authority will be exercised remains to be seen.”

The U.S. immigration law — in regard to artists — has always defined “work” as “any kind of performance.” Now, with a more stringent adherence to the law and less leeway in regard to the definition of “performance,” it is suggested that visiting entertainers procure the artist-friendly “O” or “P” work visas and not to rely upon visitor visas or the ESTA VWP.

The Dark Side

The law is on the books, and while past enforcement of the edict has been a bit more relaxed and left open to interpretation, the new administration now seems to be sticking to a more pedantic reading and enforcement of the directive — thereby changing the rules of engagement surrounding the law.

On one level, the attitude adopted by the new administration regarding ESTA is seemingly not a big deal, but what appears on the surface to be protectionism can easily turn into a problem of censorship. It is entirely reasonable to have a written law and expect that it be obeyed, but not if said law should be politicized.

Considering how immigration officers now have more power “to deny entrance to any artist from any nationality for any reason,” there is always a possibility that someone might take umbrage with a musician for the message being conveyed through their art and deny them admittance into the country.

So why should we care? Because our business of audio is to make sure that the artists we work with are heard properly and with clarity. I have listened to some of Soviet Soviet’s music, and although the band has been classified as alt rock and gothic rock, it doesn’t seem overly subversive to me. So if there is some nefarious plot to keep them quiet, the reason eludes me. But then again, my business is to make sure they are heard — and not quieted.

Music changes the world, and the musicians who make the music may not all be political activists, but their intellectual properties reach out to a large number of people which, in turn, may put them at odds with the ruling elite. Rock ‘n’ roll — by its very nature — is revolutionary and meant to shake up the staid status quo. Since the 1950’s, when Elvis Presley hip-wiggled his way into the American consciousness, there has been no turning back from the political impact of music’s transformational power.

The American music of the 1960’s and 1970’s helped to bring an end to the Vietnam War, and while influential musicians such as Bob Dylan were home grown, there were also immigrants such as John Lennon who came under constant fire from the FBI and the government in a quest to deport him for his political activism. Bono, of U2 fame — while less incendiary than Lennon — has used his fame to change the world, despite the objection of some political pundits. Bob Marley urged his listeners to not be complacent and to challenge the new world order. Tupac Shakur, KRS-One and Public Enemy are among those rappers who have spread their message across through their art. And historically, punk bands such as The Sex Pistols, Rage Against the Machine and Propagandhi have — in their own medium— done their share to bring change to the existing state of affairs.

So should we be concerned that Soviet Soviet was detained at the border and deported? Is this a new form of censorship that will slowly creep into our daily lives, or is this just a new effort to more stringently enforce laws already on the books? If the U.S. starts denying the use of the ESTA VWP to other countries, will those countries turn around and retaliate in kind? [Note: A move towards this has already begun. At presstime, the European Parliament was encouraging a motion to deny U.S. citizens visa-free access to the European Union in retaliation to U.S. visa requirements for visitors from EU member countries Poland, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, insisting on full US/EU visa reciprocity —ed.]

As time goes on, new voices will come forward to confront the supposed injustices dealt to the not-so-fortunate by the powerful few. In any case, as long as those voices are free to travel, it will be our job as audio providers to make sure that that their voices are heard loud and clear.