From blanket travel bans to the latest moratorium on certain international visitors, the legal situation has been shifting on a weekly basis. But it’s not as if entering the US has historically been a walk in the park for British acts.
Every year we hear horror stories from artists turned away at the airport for having insufficient visa cover or for being unable to answer basic questions about their visa status.
And, although many musicians travel to the States every year without the correct documentation and get away with it, some are not so lucky and, if caught, the penalties are severe.
With SXSW looming, we glean some expert advice from US immigration attorney Andrea Szew on how to grapple with the red tape.
She gives us some last-minute tips for bands booked to play Texas next week and outlines the best lines of attack for acts thinking of touring the country later in the year…
Be prepared when you enter the United States – especially now
As you have likely witnessed, the immigration environment in the United States has changed drastically. When you enter the United States, you need to be more prepared than ever before. The Customs Border Patrol (CBP) have absolute authority at the border and can ask of you whatever they want. Therefore, make sure you are prepared and have the documentation you need to secure your entry. It is a very good idea to bring with you a copy of the petition that was filed on your behalf with the original approval notice.
Be conscious and knowledgeable of what type of visa you are entering with and familiarise yourself with the parameters of that particular visa. If you are entering as a visitor under the Visa Waiver Program or on a B1/B2 visa, know what you can actually do in the US when entering on that type of visa, so if you are asked, your answer makes sense and does not lead to further questioning. Be aware that CBP can look through your phone, laptop, iPad, or any personal belongings, so if there is anything that you think would cause them to be suspicious or is counter to your true intentions of what you will be doing in the United States and your visa status, make sure you have a good explanation or don’t bring it. Preparation and knowledge are the two most important keys to a successful entry with no delays.
Don’t get spooked by the media
Even though our main source of information these days is the media, take what is said at face value. Do your own research and speak to professionals who are in the front lines to make sure you have the most accurate and up-to-date information on the state of the US immigration system. With that said, if you clearly qualify for a visa, don’t let anyone scare you into not applying for one!
Leave enough time to get your visa
It is always important to leave yourself enough time to prepare and submit a complete and thorough petition to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Especially now that there may be more scrutiny placed on petitions being submitted, you always want to make sure you have enough time to put together a strong and complete petition that has no room for questions. Also, when you give yourself plenty of time to get your visa, it allows you to brainstorm with your lawyer to find the most cost effective and appropriate visa that fits your situation, not just a cookie-cutter quick fix. In the music industry, having time is a luxury; therefore, develop a relationship with an immigration lawyer early on and discuss visa options, possible long-term goals, and your objectives before you need a visa, so when the time does come, you are ready to go and are not scrambling to find the right lawyer and the right visa.
Ask questions…lots of questions
Always ask your lawyer questions and don’t stop until you feel satisfied that you understand all your options, the costs involved, and timelines for your specific situation. Be very careful with lawyers who do not answer your questions or suddenly stop taking your calls as soon as you ask one too many. This is your life and future; don’t be shy to make sure you are clear on the path you are taking.
You do not need a label or management company to get a visa
It is not always the case that you must have a label or management company to get a visa. You can always use an individual US representative as your petitioner. Just make sure that the person you are using is someone who is connected to the music industry on some level. For example, don’t use a physician as a petitioner if you are trying to get an O visa as a composer. Using a representative opens up the opportunity to work independently and not owe allegiance to anyone, giving you more freedom.
Do not listen to the buzz on the streets – check it out yourself
I cannot tell you how many times I get calls where the person on the phone starts the conversation, ‘Well, my friend told me that they did it that way’. Remember that not everyone is the same and not everyone is always honest about their situation. It is key that you listen to what others say, but do your own research and ask questions from a lawyer that you trust. The last thing you want to do is base your future career on a strategy or plan that someone’s friend told you about.
When applying for a visa, do not just look at your current needs; look at your long-term goals - O and P visas are not the only options in the music industry
One of the biggest mistakes I see when people are applying for visas is that they get tunnel vision and only focus on the visa that will get them into the United States now, without considering the future. Even though it is true that most people or companies apply for specific United States visa to get to a certain event, it is important to think more long term. Applying for a visa is time consuming and expensive, so make sure you are getting the most out of the process. Sometimes great strategies can be used to maximize the return on investment and get the best visa that will fit either an individual artist or a company.
Do I need a visa to come perform at SXSW?
This is a question that everyone wants answered at this time of year. However, the answer is not always what people want to hear, which is that if you come to the United States to perform at SXSW (paid or not), you must have a work visa. Yet, all rules come with some exceptions. If you are coming solely to perform at an official SXSW showcase and you have an invitation letter stating so, then you may be able to enter without a work visa using the Visa Waiver Program or a B1/B2 visa. However, never forget that, even if your true intentions are only to perform at an official SXSW showcase, CBP officers are the ones who have the ultimate decision on whether you need a work visa. Therefore, no matter how small their suspicion is, they can deny entry to anyone who they think will be performing outside the parameters of an official showcase. With that said, I would always advise to err on the side of caution and get a work visa.
Andrea Szew has been an attorney for almost 20 years, beginning her career at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Within five years, she had opened her own law firm in Los Angeles, specialising in international business and immigration solutions.
She is a long standing member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and speaks regularly at conferences and engagements educating the community on business immigration and investments options.