Before crossing the border at the Peace Arch from British Columbia into Washington State on Sunday to play the South by Southwest music festival, Cherine Amr did the new due diligence in the era of Donald Trump's immigration ban: She deleted her Koran app from her phone, and made sure to erase text messages in Arabic.
"They get freaked out when they see Arabic," Ms. Amr says. "We all do this now, every Muslim when they cross the border."
Ms. Amr had done her homework: She had her documentation, including her Egyptian passport and a B-1 visa, as well as the invitation from SXSW.
It wasn't enough. Ms. Amr's band, Massive Scar Era, was denied entry.
"I don't have to justify my reasons," the border guard said, according to Ms. Amr, who lives in Burnaby.
"To be honest, the level of conversation was very respectful and calm," she told The Globe and Mail. "He said I'm sorry I can't do anything for you."
Three people were in the car: Ms. Amr, who is from Egypt and is a permanent resident in Canada, where she has been living for about two years; bass guitarist Dylan Pieter Wijdenes-Charles, who also lives in Burnaby; and violinist Emily Jane Absalom, who lives in Vancouver and was to play in band member Nancy Mounir's absence. Mr. Wijdenes-Charles and Ms. Absalom were both born in Canada.
Ms. Amr says they were told by a border officer that their B-1 visa – which had been granted by the U.S. consulate in Vancouver – was insufficient; they needed a P-2 visa. The band says it has played SXSW twice before and has used the B-1. They were to perform at a non-ticketed, free showcase and weren't getting paid; rather, they had to pay a fee.
She says she was asked whether SXSW was a not-for-profit event and when she told the border officer that she didn't know, he told her it was "on her" to have that information. She also says they were told that people were using the festival to protest.
She says they called SXSW in the officer's presence and when a festival official asked to speak with the officer, he refused.
Furthermore, Mr. Wijdenes-Charles, who is First Nations, presented his Indian status card and was told that next time he tries to cross the border he should bring DNA or blood test results to prove he is First Nations, according to Ms. Amr.
She says she has no doubt this happened because of U.S. President Donald Trump's travel restrictions and because she has an Egyptian passport. (The Trump administration's revised executive order affects travel and immigration from six primarily Muslim countries, but not Egypt.)
In response to an inquiry from The Globe, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it cannot disclose information regarding specific international travellers because of the Privacy Act, but said all travellers must possess valid documents. "For example, if an individual is a member of an internationally recognized entertainment group, they must apply for and be granted a P-1 visa," read a line in bold from the e-mail.
(The P-1 visa is generally made available to internationally known artists; the P-2 is for artists and entertainers who perform under a temporary, reciprocal exchange program between a U.S. organization and an organization in another country.)
The statement notes that a visa or visa waiver does not guarantee entry to the United States. "A CBP officer at the port of entry will conduct an inspection to determine if the individual is eligible for admission under U.S. immigration law."
Another line sent in bold reads: "… applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome ALL grounds of inadmissibility."
SXSW, which has had several bands denied entry to the United States this year, sent a statement to The Globe from Jonathan Ginsburg, an expert in entertainment and immigration law now serving as immigration counsel to the festival.
"U.S. immigration law allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. using a B visa or the Visa Waiver Program to conduct business, but not to render services. The U.S. Department of State, accordingly, has long recognized that entertainment groups may enter the United States to "showcase," but not to perform under contract with U.S. venues or other employers.
"SXSW is working in concert with other U.S. organizations in an effort to ensure that both the State Department and CBP continue to treat showcasing as a valid activity in B or Visa Waiver status. In the meantime, SXSW remains confident that the vast majority of consular officers and CBP officials understand and respect the need for, and the principle of, showcasing at promotional events such as the official SXSW event." //
Massive Scar Era was to play two other U.S. gigs, but it was the SXSW festival that the border officer was concerned about, Ms. Amr says. The gig was scheduled for Thursday, but there are no plans to try to cross the border again.
"We're all traumatized," Ms. Amr says. "I cried so much even on the way back. And I didn't sleep for two days. Dylan is really hurt because of this DNA [issue]. He was offended. Emily had a panic attack."
The ordeal lasted nearly two hours, after which they turned around, headed to a Tim Hortons and ordered double-doubles. "I was just very happy that I'm in Canada and I've never faced any problems."