SXSW’s immigration clauses are ‘not standard,’ lawyers say

Update, 03/07/17: South by Southwest organizers said Tuesday they had updated their performance agreement so that it no longer suggested the festival could alert immigration authorities about international artists who caused problems or endangered safety. It reserved the right to notify local authorities if issues arose. “With the announcement of President Trump’s latest Travel Ban, SXSW would like to reaffirm its public opposition to these executive orders and provide ongoing support to the artists traveling from foreign countries to our event,” it said in a statement.

Musicians are protesting the annual music, film and media festival South by Southwest after it was discovered that the festival reserved the right to alert U.S. immigration authorities about international artists if they violated their performance agreement.

Artist Felix Walworth of the band Told Slant, who first noticed the language in the agreement, posted a photo of the contract Thursday on Twitter, saying he was canceling the band’s performance at the festival. Later that day, more than 40 artists published an open letter saying they were “outraged,” especially “in light of the recent attacks on immigrant communities.” They also called on SXSW to immediately remove the language from the contract.

In a statement emailed to the PBS NewsHour, SXSW CEO and Co-Founder Roland Swenson said the clauses had been in the contract for years, and that the festival had never reported an international artists to immigration authorities. Swenson also said the language was meant to protect both SXSW and performing artists.

Entertainment and immigration lawyers, however, say that doesn’t hold up.

Brian Goldstein, a partner at entertainment law firm Goldstein & Guilliams, who has handled immigration law for artists for more than20 years, said the contract’s language seemed “more oblivious than nefarious.”

“It’s not common. It’s not standard. And it goes far beyond what is necessary,” he said.

The first clause in question reads that if an artist gives SXSW trouble, the festival may alert immigration authorities:

If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that Artist or its representatives have acted in ways that

  • adversely affect the viability of Artist’s official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:
  • Artist will be removed from their official SXSW showcase
  • and, at SXSW’s sole option, replaced.
  • Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled.
  • Artist’s credentials will be canceled.
  • SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration
  • authorities of the above actions.

Swenson defended the clause in his statement as being a “safeguard” for SXSW in case a band or artist “does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.”

But Goldstein said the notion that the festival would alert immigration authorities over a problematic act doesn’t make sense. “The most you will see is a contract that says artists should take care of all visa issues, and that they can cancel performances if you don’t. But this goes way beyond that,” he said.

New York-based entertainment lawyer Deborah Hrbek agrees with Goldstein. She said there was no legal obligation for an event or organizer to report misbehaving, or even law-breaking, musicians to immigration authorities. “That is far beyond what they as a citizen or company would be obliged to do,” she said.

Austin, Texas, where the annual festival takes place, is a sanctuary city, meaning the city generally does not hand over undocumented immigrants for deportation.

READ MORE: The teens caught in the middle of Austin’s Sanctuary City debate

Last month, the state senate passed a bill that requires towns, cities and college campuses across the state to comply with requests from federal immigration officers. But the legislation must still pass the House, which means for now, Austin can keep its sanctuary city status.

While there’s plenty of opposition to the bill in Austin, it has strong support in the rest of the state — and much of the country. A recent Harvard-Harris poll showed 80 percent of voters thought towns and cities should be “reporting illegal immigrants they come into contact with to federal agents.”

Anastasia Tonello, a managing partner of immigration firm Laura Devine Attorneys, said it was normal for music organizations to require paid performers to have proper authorization, but even then, to alert authorities would be above and beyond standard practice. “I’m stretching my mind to find a parallel” to the SXSW contract’s language in contracts she’d seen, she said, and could not find one.

A second clause in the performer contract provides artists with information about the visas required to perform, and says a lack of proper paperwork could result in deportation:

1.4. Foreign Artists
entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any
non-work visa may not perform at any public or unofficial shows, DAY OR NIGHT,
in Austin from March 10-19, 2017. Accepting and performing at unofficial events
(including unofficial events aside from SXSW Music dates during their visit to
the United States) may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and
denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US ports of entry. For more
information, please visit these pages:

1.4.1.(B Visa / ESTA)
1.4.2.(Work Visas)
1.4.3.SXSW general visa

Swenson defended this clause in his statement as intended to inform artists “that the U.S. immigration authorities have mechanisms to create trouble for artists who ignore U.S. immigration laws.”

But Goldstein said this language, too, is highly unusual — and actually “legally incorrect and misleading.”

“They say they’re providing immigration information, but it’s only semi-accurate and they’re cherry picking issues … as if someone has read the statute and doesn’t understand what it is,” he said.

By contrast, Goldstein said top theaters sometimes provide international artists with a fact sheet containing immigration information, or direct them to the website Artists From Abroad. “But they don’t put [that information] in the contract,” he said. “That’s just weird.”

Both Goldstein and Hrbek said providing immigration information in another format might have been welcomed by artists. “In light of the heightened risk of deportation, warning people that that’s a risk, that they could be deported by ICE as a result of any public performances is fair and appropriate,” Hrbek said.

But she echoed the sentiment that the idea that the festival would alert immigration authorities was extremely uncommon.

READ MORE: Immigration ban reveals a nation divided

SXSW had previously spoken out against President Donald Trump’s since-suspended executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. And in his statement, Swenson said the festival was also building “a coalition of attorneys to assist artists with issues at U.S. ports of entry during the event.” An event at SXSW, called “ContraBanned: #MusicUnites,” will also showcase performers from the seven nations affected by the ban.

But this did not seem to pacify the artist community. On Thursday, Liz Pelly, who does programming for the New York-based art incubation space The Silent Barn, tweeted: “Artists and labels really need to organize thoughtful + rigorous sxsw boycott next year. destroy exploitative systems” and “stop supporting venues with bad politics.”

SXSW senior public relations manager Elizabeth Derczo told the NewsHour by email that the festival would be “reviewing and revising the language” of the contract after 2017’s festival was over.

Below, read the tweets of musician Felix Walworth of the band Told Slant over boycotting the festival.