Egyptian-Canadian band refused entry to U.S. over visa confusion

An Egyptian-Canadian band based out of Vancouver is learning the hard way that proper documentation is needed when entering into the United States.

Three members of the post-hardcore band Massive Scar Era were traveling to Austin, Texas to play at the South by Southwest music festival when they were turned away at the Peace Arch border on March 12.

Vocalist and lead guitarist Cherine Amr, an Egyptian citizen with permanent residency in Canada, said the band had B1 visas — a type of visa that covers those who are going to the U.S. for events such as conferences or meetings but not receiving payment.

Instead they were told they needed a P2 work permit, which is for artists and entertainers who are getting paid.

Band traveled before on same visa

However Amr said she has traveled to the U.S. on a B1 visa to play SXSW twice before.

"This was the third time. And [the border guard] said, 'Just because this happened before doesn't mean it's lawful.' So I don't know what's lawful anymore," Amr said.

Kevin Zemp, an immigration lawyer and former immigration officer, said there are "myriads of manuals and policies and guidelines" for immigration officers, and not all officers may have expertise in each area.

"So it doesn't surprise me at all that some officers when they're told that this band is going down and is being unpaid would just assume that that is an appropriate admission as a visitor for business purposes," Zemp said.

"Whereas in reality there are another set of manuals which officers often at the ports of entry don't look at as closely, called the foreign affairs manual, and that manual quite specifically states that if a musician is going down to the United States and wants to enter ... as a visitor that not only can they not be paid, but also the venue or the festival can't be charging admission."

Careful documentation important: lawyer

The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs' website states that "any professional performance before a paying audience" is not allowed under a visitor or 'B' visa. The same is said on a guideline for B1 visas on the website of the Canadian Federation of Musicians.

A wrist band for the SXSW music festival running March 13 to 19 costs $189 US.

Zemp said he believes there "certainly" is more scrutiny at the U.S. border now, and that officers are putting more attention on admission procedures and requirements.

"Anyone traveling across the border — even if they have had no problems in the past — would be wise to re-evaluate their circumstances, what they're doing, and go a little further in making sure they meet the exact requirements of the category."

There have been a number of immigration-related headaches for the Austin-based music festival SXSW this year.

Earlier this month, an American musician announced he was withdrawing from SXSW over a contract provision stating that the festival could contact immigration agents if an international artist violates the performance agreement to perform at unofficial events.

Aside from official SXSW showcases, there are typically hundreds of unofficial events where artists perform and network with the music industry.

The revelation swiftly inspired a backlash on social media, including a petition and open letter signed by a host of musicians set to perform this year.

They called for an apology and immediate repeal of the provision.

Ultimately, festival organizers vowed to remove the offending language, beginning with the 2018 edition.

With files from Anita Bathe and Jessica Wong