Artists Detained and Deported for Violation of ESTA Visa Waivers. U.S. Customs Reasoning Is Unclear, and so Is Information Provided on Their Official Government-sanctioned Site.
[Disclaimer: all opinions are the author’s own, formed through research as opposed to the personal experience of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.]
During the weekend of August 25, three Dungeons & Dragons artists were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE) at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Anna Steinbauer, Magali Villeneuve, and Titus Lunter were traveling to the states from Austria, France, and the Netherlands, respectively, for a “several-week-long meeting at Wizards of the Coast to discuss Dungeons & Dragons.” The three artists possessed ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waivers to travel. According to a statement made by Titus Lunter, the three artists were “pulled out of the line [at U.S. Customs] and put into a separate detainment area” where they were interviewed by “very courteous immigrations officers” for six hours.
According to The Outhousers contributor Tim Midura, the first information about the detainment appeared on Magali Villeneuve’s Twitter on August 25 via her husband. It stated, “Magali was detained at customs with some other members of the team who were to work at WotC. Apparently, they won’t let them back into the country. They took Magali’s phone, I could only talk to her for a minute.”
Lunter shared his full statement of the experience on Twitter on August 27. You can read the post in full below.
This is what happened:
Please don't point fingers. It's a very complicated situation and we are figuring out what exactly went wrong and why. Mostly, we are tired, scared, glad and overwhelmed. A huge thanks to your support and love. pic.twitter.com/c9hadptU8f
— Titus '✈️Frankfurt MCQ✈️' Lunter (@TitusLunter) August 27, 2018
What Is ESTA and How Does It Work?
According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, ESTA is “an automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program and whether such travel poses any law enforcement or security risk…ESTA is not a visa…In the same way that a valid visa does not guarantee admission to the United States, an approved ESTA is not a guarantee of admission to the United States.”
The most prominent feature in all the reports of this incident so far is that travelers who are part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)—and therefore judged by ESTA upon their stateside arrival—cannot work while in the United States. In doing research into the VWP and ESTA, I have come to find that there is no mention of working under the VWP anywhere on the official government website for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Not in the general overview of ESTA, not in the Frequently Asked Questions. Nowhere can I find any mention of the very important fact that you cannot work under the VWP. Working violates your visa waiver agreement.
ComicBook.com contributor Christian Hoffer speculated, “The artists were likely detained because ICE determined that they were in the country for paid work, which violates the terms of the ESTA visa waiver.”
For further information on ESTA, I found an extremely informative five-page PDF by the American Visa Bureau all about ESTA. For context, the Visa Bureau is “an independent immigration advisory service providing information, advice, and case management to individuals, families, and businesses wishing to live and work or relocate staff to America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.”
On the second page of the PDF, under Commonly Asked Questions, point number five asks: “Can I work in the United States on an ESTA?” It’s right there, in the open, plain as day. I didn’t even have to search hard at all to find it. Literally, I just scrolled down a little bit and there was my answer. “Strictly, no”. And the question right after that. “I need to attend a business convention in the United States and attend a few meetings, am I covered by my visa for this?” Sound familiar?
How many tabs did I have to open on the U.S. Customs website, looking for any scrap of information about working on an ESTA visa waiver? And then, here is a London-based service that provides more information on U.S. Customs than the U.S. Customs official government website.
My point is, these are things someone needs to know if they are traveling on an ESTA visa waiver. If someone is getting their information from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, they have to actively search for that topic. What if it’s not something they’ve thought about? In the Visa Bureau PDF, the information is right there; no jumping through hoops.[Update: VisaBureau.com has discontinued their United States visa and immigration services. It is unclear when this change was made. They now provide a link to the U.S. Customs website. They have also discontinued their Canadian visa services. Australian, New Zealand, and UK websites are still up and running.]
The Bottom Line
Steinbauer, Villeneuve, and Lunter are home safe. Wizards of the Coast delayed making a formal statement until its employees were back home. This move irked some fans, but Villeneuve replied in a statement to Hipsters of the Coast, “We need help and they are giving it.” On August 27, the official Magic: The Gathering Twitter page posted, “These creators are beloved at Wizards and in the community. While we address the events of this weekend, rest assured that they’ll continue to be a part of Magic and D&D for years to come.” According to Villeneuve, the company is making sure the artists’ careers don’t suffer because of the incident.