The SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas is one of the largest music festivals in the country, attracting performers from all around the world. The event that is currently happening this week is the first edition to occur during the Trump Administration and the change to Customs and Border Patrol's scrutiny of foreign visitors. As a result, some performers who thought they were allowed into the US with the documentation they have are getting surprised when CPB denies them entry into the US. You can read some of the news coverage here.
Quick analysis of the SXSW/visa issue:
1. The SXSW organizers are not the arbiters of US immigration law, so when artists "have a letter from SXSW" and attempt to use that as proof with US Customs and Border Patrol, the artists are asking for trouble. That's like telling the police that your friend told you it was OK borrow the car when you get stopped.
2. What the performers are attempting to rely on is either the Visa Waiver program or a tourist visa, the latter of which prohibits any kind of employment. It's pretty simple. A B-2 visa, for example, allows participation by amateurs in musical, sports, or similar events or contests, if not being paid for participating.
3. The artists are getting either no legal advice, or bad legal advice, and that's no defense.
4. The artists should have management & legal counsel in the US that can pave the way for their entry into the US to perform. If the performers obtained the right kind of visa - a P-2 or P-3 visa - they likely would not have this problem, as the P visas authorize holders to perform at entertainment events while they are in the US.
5. The purpose of the visa has to actually be the purpose for entry into the country. Performing at a promotional showcase is arguably a commercial purpose, which is why the performers are being denied entry. Even though the artists aren't getting paid cash, they are receiving value - (the old chestnut of "exposure"), plus the event organizers are certainly making money from the performers' appearances. That touches on another short essay for later about who benefits when artists work for "free".