Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Big Brother's got Google: US immigration restrictions on musicians

We've previously covered the campaign against the draconian new immigration restrictions on musicians and artists entering the UK, but of course this isn't just an issue in this country.

An article by Bill Shoemaker at online music journal Point of Departure highlights the difficulties in musicians getting visas to work in the USA. He notes that the rules have tightened up:

'making the process even more byzantine and expensive than before. Fees to the government and States-side facilitators regularly exceed $2,000 (including a $200 pay-off to the American Federation of Musicians), particularly if the applicant wants anything resembling a timely decision; that requires a grand for what the government innocuously calls “premium processing,” the value of which is reportedly shrinking. Additionally, applicants face sundry charges for courier delivery, special photographs, and a biometric passport; the extortive telephone rates for enquiries that invariably yield the same information as the forms are optional. The costs are prohibitive'.

In the past musicians from the European Union playing low key non-commercial gigs have usually been able to enter the USA without visas - now this too has changed:

'Big Brother’s got Google... Even though Europeans can enter the US without a visa, they must fill out an online form on the US Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) site 72 hours prior to arrival in the US. Persons entering as tourists who have previously been issued work permits are flagged for review by airport-based authorities. By the time a musician presents his or her passport, a thorough online search has most likely been conducted, and even meager door gigs have come on the radar. Two recent cases point up how European musicians are now snared.

In the first case, the musician was originally coming to the US for a recording session, which can easily be kept on the down low – and, technically, does not require a visa if the musician is not paid while in the US.. But, in the weeks before his trip, word of his arrival had spread, and offers of door gigs and jam sessions ensued. His processing at the immigration station upon arrival went a bit too quickly, he thought at the time. He was then approached as he waited for his bags: There’s been a technical problem; please follow us; etc. The musician then spent hours in the immigration room. His passport and ticket were taken, presumably to negotiate his return flight. After many trivial questions, authorities showed him the search listings for the little gigs and jam sessions. He claimed he wasn't making any money on these gigs, and wasn't aware that what he thought were informal jam sessions had been formally announced, but the Feds didn’t buy it. The musician was allowed three phone calls to US numbers; he was then fingerprinted and escorted onto the plane for the return flight. His passport was not returned to him until his arrival in Europe.

In the other case, the musician was just about to clear immigration when they found a work permit from a few years ago in his passport. He was then Googled. When they discovered his two gigs, he was taken aside and handcuffed. After a three-hour interrogation, he was taken to a Federal facility, where he spent the night in a cell. His cell phone and computer were confiscated. He was able to reach his parents, who managed to get their embassy to call immigration officials, who would not either confirm or deny that the musician was being held. He was deported the next day. One of the uglier features of this episode is that the musician was berated by an official who repeated the accusation: “You have come here to steal our money.”

As argued here previously we should be wary of pushing for musicians to have special immigration privileges - they are no more (or less) deserving or in need than many other people trying to move across borders. In a world where we are told that there should be no restrictions on the free movement of capital and commodities, it is the restrictions on the free movement of all human beings that we should be contesting. But the fact that people from different parts of the world are being prevented from the simple human act of sharing music throws the inhumanity of the global borders regime into sharp relief.

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