SXSW in the Trump Era: Immigration Language in Contract Causes Controversy, Cancellations

It only took a few hours for organizers of the SXSW to try and clean up a massive mess that will undoubtedly mar this year’s music and technology festival: Felix Walworth of Told Slant revealed the festival will be reporting to US immigration officials if any artists are not in the country on current or up-to-date papers or in any way illegally.

“After looking through this contract sent to me by SXSW, I have decided to cancel Told Slant’s performance at the festival,” Walworth posted Thursday afternoon on Twitter. “I’m not interested in aligning myself with an institution that interacts with immigration authorities as a means of controlling where art is shared and performed, or who makes money off of it.”

Walworth continued:

This festival uses an imperialist model and prioritizes centralizing and packaging culture over communities & people’s safety. It’s no secret that SXSW has played a huge role in the process (of) Austin’s rapid gentrification. The whole festival exists to the detriment of working class people & people of color in Austin. That they’re willing to threaten deportation is enough evidence for me that they don’t care about anyone including the artists that lend them their legitimacy.”

By Thursday evening, the thread had been retweeted and liked thousands of times.

Others involved in the festival are speaking out.

David Viecelli, better known as Boche Billions of The Billions Corp., said the contract’s language is an “overreach” and is an attempt to limit both the performers making the trip to Austin and other events affiliated with the festival or taking place in the city at the same time.

“They’re trying to ramp up enforcement by threatening more egregious penalties,” he told the Chicago Tribune. If a band were to arrive and intend to play SXSW but was found to be in violation of the contract or US immigration policy, not only would the performance be cancelled “but it also would be a black mark that would make it more difficult to get a visa again. They’re threatening an unjust punishment that doesn’t fit the crime.”

Still, Viecelli and others point out that the provisions in the contract has been there for years but “are rarely strictly enforced.”

Other artists already cancelled their performances to avoid any immigration situations.

“Sorry the band are restricted to official SXSW showcases as they have a ‘visa waiver’ as a USA work permit costs more than flights, meaning they can be deported/5-year ban if they play any unofficial shows & the have more big showcases TBA,” an agent of a Japanese band wrote to Ashley Bradley, an Austin-based booker, a few weeks ago, the Austin Chronicle reports.

In a statement provided to the Austin Chronicle and picked up widely in the hours after the initial posts were published, SXSW CEO and Founder Roland Swenson reiterate his festival’s vocal opposition to US President Donald Trump’s “Travel Ban” and has been “working hard to build a coalition of attorneys to assist artists with issues at US ports of entry during the event. We have artists from 62 countries from around the world performing and have always supported our international music community. We have never reported international showcasing artists to immigration authorities.”

Swenson calls the entire situation a “misunderstanding of our policies regarding international artists.”

Given the current political climate and the high emotions over the executive order signed by Trump designed to eliminate the immigration or travel of people from a handful of countries in which Islam is a predominant religion, Swenson says that “violating US immigration law has always carried potentially severe consequences, and we would be remiss not to warn our participating acts of the likely repercussions.”

The language Walworth pointed to “has been in the artists Performance Agreement for many years,” Swenson says. “It is, and always was intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.”

An open letter to get the language removed from the contract was started Thursday by Victoria Ruiz of Downtown Boys. “So many of the artists playing the festival are addressing and confronting the very power structures that SXSW is perpetuating through their threats,” Ruiz told The Verge. “They are a festival not law enforcement.”

The open letter can be read here; by midnight Thursday into Friday, more than 40 acts had signed.

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Amber Healy has 517 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

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