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Thursday, September 24, 2009
A Situation That Could Affect Any Traveling Musicians
5:26 PM
Earlier this week I received an email from a close friend, Alesa. She recounted to me a horrible experience she had attempting to meet up with her boyfriend Marcus Ratcliff, a Brit musician who's visited the US quite a few times in the past few years. Unfortunately their meetup didn't happen, thanks to overzealous Customs agents. She sent along Marcus' account of what happened, and I'd like to reprint it here:

On the 19th of September, 2009, I caught a Northwest Airlines flight from London Heathrow to Minneapolis-St Pauls Airport to visit my girlfriend of four years, Alesa Byers, who lives in Los Angeles.

The purpose of my trip was a holiday but I was planning to stay in the US for the maximum length of 90 days that the Visa Waiver Program allows. It was this proposed holiday duration that caught the attention of the first US Customs Officer that I saw in Minneapolis. He called over a second officer to direct me to the customs lounge, the place in which I would spend the next four and a half hours trying to explain it.

At this time I had no engagements in the UK so it seemed like a great opportunity to spend some real time with Alesa. I am a musician by profession and so I decided that my time in LA would be well spent if I wrote some songs during my stay. These two items comprised the explanation that I gave to all the customs officers that I encountered in Minneapolis Airport.

After an initial waiting period of forty-five minutes the Customs Officer that would ultimately decide to refuse me entry to the US began his interview with me. Again, it was the duration of my holiday that seemed to cause problems, in spite of the explanation outlined above. I was asked to collect together the three bags that I had brought to the US so that they could be searched. I was travelling with an acoustic guitar and was repeatedly asked whether I was intending to play any gigs or release any material while I was in LA. I answered that I had no intention to do anything but write songs during my stay, but these same questions were raised again and again over the course of my interview. Clearly the officer suspected me of intending both to work and to stay in LA beyond the period of 90 days. I had intended to do neither.

It was at this point that the customs officer asked me for the addresses and passwords of all of my email accounts. I gave them to him in the hopes that they might support my previous explanations, but it soon became clear that the purpose of this search was to corroborate his own theories about my visit. After ten minutes he thought that he had that evidence – in the form of an email from my friend advising me on the best way to present myself to US Embassy representatives. My friend knew that I wanted to stay in the US for as long as legally possible and so was trying to help me get a six-month tourist visa. Unfortunately, even though my reply to this email outlined both my belief that “honesty is the best policy” and the true intentions of my visit – borne out in my explanations at the time - it was interpreted by my customs officer as proof that I was going to try to stay in the US beyond the legal limit. However, nowhere in the email conversation was it mentioned that I would try to do so. It was purely on the subject of obtaining a tourist visa.

The supposed evidence that access to my recent emails seemed to give my customs officer soon aroused the interest of other officials in Minneapolis customs lounge who soon took it upon themselves to accuse me of “fraud and misrepresenting my intentions”. I was asked to give a statement under oath in the hope that I might change my explanations under the threat of perjuring myself, the punishment of which – I was repeatedly reminded – is either a $10,000 fine and/or a five year prison sentence. Despite this oft-mentioned threat, however, my version of my intentions remained unchanged.

At 22.05 I was put on the next flight to London, fully aware of the very real pain that this quite arbitrary denial would cause me in my future engagements with the US. I am now back in the UK and faced with the prospect of applying for a visa every time that I want to visit Alesa – a process that I have been advised will take around eight weeks. That this inconvenience should come as the result of a decision based on such weak evidence is a real blow.

I believe that the insistence on my guilt and the threat of perjury that the officers maintained was beyond the scope of their authority. I also believe that the evidence upon which my entry to the US was denied was severely overstated. Conversely, of course, the strong evidence in my favour was entirely overlooked. The fact that I didn’t change my explanations under oath, the fact that emails of mine corroborated these explanations, the bank statement I had brought that showed that I had more than sufficient funds for my visit and the exemplary history of visits to the US that preceded this one – none of this evidence was ever mentioned by the customs agents at Minneapolis Airport.
Marcus is a great guy, and in the short time I have spent with him I had not the slightest thought that he was anything but upstanding. From what he (through Alesa) has related to me, he is guilty only of naivete in trusting the Customs officials with his emails.

This situation is one that could easily affect any musician or artist (or anyone, really) visiting this country for any length of time. US citizens, if you can spare the time, please take a moment to voice your concerns about this situation to your Representative and Senators. If you're not sure who they are or how to contact them, click here and enter your address to receive that info.

Please share this with everyone, as this kind of behavior is something that is antithetical to the values we hold in America.

NOTE: i accidentally posted this to my "audio" page (duh), so i am moving it here, where i intended for it to go.

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