Keeping America Safe From the World’s Most Dangerous Poi Spinner

Ok, this is stupid.

(local copy for posterity)

Banned from the USA

On Thursday, March 31st, 2005, I had an immigration catastrophe. I have been banned from entering the USA for any purpose until April 1st, 2010, at which point I will be able to apply for a five-year pass (a somewhat expensive and paperwork intensive procedure). I will have to re-apply for this pass every five years for the rest of my life, unless the laws change. If I am caught trying to enter the USA I would be risking criminal prosecution and a criminal record for life. There is a complicated and expensive procedure to get me in earlier, but it is currently beyond my reach (see below).

Below is some more information to better explain how it all happened:

The Lead-Up:

2004 -I have, in the past, taught poi workshops in the USA without a non-immigrant work visa. At the time, I didn’t even know what a non-immigrant work visa was. I was invited to teach some casual workshops and I went. It was the first time I experienced any support for what I’m doing, which was a good feeling.

January, 2005: I tried flying to Reno for an all-too-rare performance gig. I’d been told by the Canadian Small Business Service Centre that I just needed a letter from the company saying they were hiring me for one night and then flying me home, which sounded reasonable because I’ve grown up being told that there is free trade between our countries. The information turned out to be totally false. Free trade does not apply to artists. I was handed denial papers at the airport and turned away.

March, 2005: I was preparing for my big trip, which included seeing loved friends, collaborating artistically with professional dancers, camping in the desert, and teaching poi workshops. I looked into getting a non-immigrant work visa, and discovered that it is not accessible for small artists. It takes up to 120 days. It is a tremendous amount of paperwork. It is expensive. It requires a sponsoring company in the USA. Etc.

I decided to tell immigration that I was visiting friends. I bought a plane ticket from Seattle, WA, to Boise, ID (the first stop on my tour) and arranged for a ride across the border with a friend. The van turned out to be a bit dodgy looking. The side mirror was duct-taped to the door, the window didn’t roll down so the driver had to open the door to talk to the border guard, etc. Driving to the border I started having a bad feeling about it all.

What Happened?

The border guard asked us a couple questions, looked unimpressed, and told us to report inside. The officers inside put my name in the computer and saw that I had been turned back by customs in January. They believed I was attempting to perform in the USA again and began the process of intensely questioning me and going through my stuff. I told them that I made my living running a poi/dance studio in Vancouver, and that people came to me from all over, etc. They asked me, “well what’s your website then (clickity clickity click on the computer)? You must have a website (click clickity… click), right?” I went very pale and had the impression they had googled me and were looking at the results. If I said yes, they would find out that I was teaching workshops in the USA. If I said no they wouldn’t believe me and would find out very quickly that I was teaching unauthorized poi workshops. I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to tell the truth. (I’m possibly the world’s worst liar.) It was actually a really interesting experience, to go from lying to telling the truth… and it showed me just how much I hate lying, even to border guards. Four hours later I was walked back to Canada.

I know, I should have asked for my rights. I should have asked to call a lawyer. I should have asked if I’m allowed to keep my mouth shut and return to Canada. Please, don’t ever tell me about all the things that you think I should have done. I’ve been over it.

And then?

This was somewhat devastating at the time. I was in the middle of trying to get the Poi Studio off the ground. It had been going badly and I had already lost over $10,000 and was broke. The yoga teachers who said they wanted to rent space had all disappeared. Everything was proving more complicated than I’d anticipated, and because I was racing to pay rent each month I wasn’t having time to do any of the things that would actually help me get things running. I worked out the big tour to the USA to get back to being a month or two ahead of rent.

I did my best to stay positive but it was sometimes difficult. I felt terrible. Everybody was disappointed, and I’m cut off from 90% of the population of my continent. I’ve made some of my closest friends on my travels down the west coast. It was difficult to write everybody and explain that I might not see them for a years. My getting barred from the USA is like somebody in Spain getting barred from the rest of Europe. And this had to happen on March 31st, of all dates. Thus I wrote and called everybody on April 1st, and then had to explain to everybody that no, it wasn’t an April Fools Joke. Ha ha ha. Oh, life is a stage.

After returning to Canada I continued to work rather frantically for several months, and eventually realized that I just couldn’t do it by myself. I kept it long enough to finish filming The Scales of Poi, cleaned up, gave the keys back to the land-lord, and paid off my debts via manual labor and a big poi tour across Canada etc. I did my best but I was quite depressed at times. It’s all making more sense now, and is one of the reasons I have been exploring Europe and Asia, which I think is a positive thing. Also, it showed me a lot about honesty, responsibility, listening to the whispering voice of intuition, etc. For a while I thought it would even be fun to be America’s #1 poi outlaw, but there was little reaction, although a few people came up to Canada, which I was thankful for.

The Conclusion:

It actually took a couple years to get back on top of things, and hopefully I’ll never go into that kind of financial crisis again (although knowing me there’s a good chance I will). There is a procedure for applying for a waiver and a work-visa, but I would need a sponsoring company with enough time and money (approximately $5000 in application fees) to jump through a lot of hoops. So basically, if Cirque Du Soleil wanted to hire me they could probably get me in. I haven’t had any such offers and can’t even find performance work in Canada, so for now I am exploring the rest of the world and slowly doing the things that would allow me to make the right contacts anyway.

Dispite all of this there were actually some funny stories involved, one of which came up while we were filming some test footage for the Scales of Poi. Below is the clip, brought to you via YouTube.

Stay tuned for updates.

North America’s #1 Poi Outlaw,

Nick Woolsey

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