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New US visa rules to vet artists’ socials

In a further obstacle for foreign artists braving an already “complex and unreliable” application process, the American state department has declared that it now requires “social media identifiers” to be included in nearly all applications for US visas.

In what the Associated Press calls a “vast expansion of the Trump administration’s enhanced screening of potential immigrants and visitors”, virtually all applicants for a United States visa – only certain diplomatic and official visa types are excluded – will need to provide their usernames for most social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Flickr, as well as all previous email addresses, used in the previous five years.

The changes are expected to affect around 14 million non-immigrant visa applications, including thousands by musicians, entertainers and performers. While the state department claims the new rules will help keep Americans safe while still allowing “legitimate travel” to the US, civil liberties groups have warned the move could lead to individuals hostile to the current administration being barred from entering the country.

Andy Corrigan of UK-based entertainment visa specialist Viva La Visa, whose clients include Ed Sheeran, Elton John and Mumford and Sons, says the new questions on the non-immigrant visa application form, known as DS-160, “could have an impact on applicants” from the entertainment business, noting that “there have been cases where people have been refused entry to the US because of what they have said in the media”. (In US immigration law, a conviction is not needed to prove a criminal act took place.)

“For instance,” he explains, “possession or use of controlled substances usually makes one ineligible to receive a US visa. There is no requirement for a conviction – an admission of committing the act is sufficient.

“Celebrity cook Nigella Lawson was denied boarding of a flight to the US because of her in-court admission of drug use; she was not charged. We understand she was later issued with a visa.”

Sophie Kirov of Australian touring consultancy Badlands Group says while “applicants should not be overtly concerned that their visa will be denied”, it’s important the information provided on the DS-160 is consistent with posts on social media platforms (ie no telling US authorities you’re a clean-living non-terrorist while posting about your chronic cocaine use and jihadist tendencies online).

“There have been cases where applicants have been denied because of what they have said in the media”

“Misrepresentation can make you inadmissible for entry to the US,” confirms Corrigan. “If they ask if you’ve ever contravened a law regarding a controlled substance, and you lie – that misrepresentation is generally regarded as seriously as the original offence.”

Corrigan says Viva La Visa has, “as yet, had no cases relating to the new questions, but they only came in yesterday.”

Despite the seemingly drastic changes, he explains the state department has not actually made “a huge change in policy”.

“It’s happening already,” he says. “We know they’ve been googling people – we’ve had artists who have gone in for their interview at the embassy and they’ve looked them up online there and then,” he adds. “So this is largely a logical extension of that existing policy.”

Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which opposes the new rules, says the requirement to hand over social media details is “dangerous and problematic”, and “does nothing to protect security concerns but raises significant privacy concerns and First Amendment issues for citizens and immigrants”.

She tells the New York Times: “Research shows that this kind of monitoring has chilling effects, meaning that people are less likely to speak freely and connect with each other in online communities that are now essential to modern life.”

The state department, meanwhile, says it is “constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect US citizens while supporting legitimate travel to the United States”.


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Italian artist on ESTA deported from US

In news that bodes ill for international acts hoping to play South by Southwest 2018 with ESTA or tourist visas, Italian singer Damien McFly was forced to cancel a planned appearance at the NAMM Show in Anaheim, California, after failing to gain entry to the US under the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) visa waiver programme.

Padua-based McFly (real name Damiano Ferrari) was booked to play a set at the NAMM Show, the world’s biggest musical instrument/pro-audio industry conference, on Saturday 27 January, but found himself detained for 26 hours at LAX then sent back to Italy after authorities denied him entry.

He explains: “I left Venice thinking about the sense of freedom I feel every time I tour the US, performing in the land of folk, country, blues – all the music that inspires me. Unfortunately, this time that was not the case. After passport control the Department of Homeland Security decided to further check my documents and the type of performance I had to attend at NAMM Show.

“ESTA is a very restrictive visa – actually I think it is not even a real visa. And my showcase was not officially sponsored by the Italian government. So they declared me inadmissible, seized my phone and baggage and kept me in a detention room until I could take the next flight home, 26 hours – and some regret – later.”

“They declared me inadmissible, seized my phone and baggage and kept me in a detention room until I could take the next flight home”

The incident has echoes of South by Southwest 2017, when at least ten artists were barred from entering the country after attempting to enter on ESTAs or tourist visas – a previously common practice for showcases or other non-commercial shows.

Fees for performance (or “nonimmigrant worker”) visas for the US have skyrocketed in recent years, most recently jumping a huge 42% at the end of 2016. Writing in IQ shortly after, Tamizdat’s Matthew Covey, an immigration lawyer, explained that the increase in fees is “not the [only] problem with the US artist visa process. The problem is that the process is so slow that almost everyone has to pay the government’s $1,225 ‘premium processing’ expediting fee, and it is so complex and unreliable that almost everyone has to hire a lawyer to get through it (costing anywhere from $800 to $8,000).”

Amid last year’s controversy, SXSW took the side of the performers, saying a tourist (‘B’) visa should be sufficient for playing unpaid showcases. Following the hike in visa fees, it is likely many artists decided to try their chances on B visas or ESTAs – although it remains to be seen how many foreign acts will risk doing so in 2018.


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