Are Italian winemakers not welcome in Trump America?

From the department of “this is Trump America, damnit! Isn’t American wine great enough for you?”

Above: Border Field State Park in the very southwestern corner of the United States about 15 miles south of San Diego. I visited the U.S.-Mexico border there in late February.

Many Italian winemakers are anxious about Trump America. And when I write that, I’m not referring to the platform of hate, bigotry, xenophobia, protectionism, isolationism, and populism white nationalism that delivered him to the White House (they’re nervous about all of the above as well).

Since President Trump’s inauguration, I’ve been asked countless times by my Italian clients, colleagues, and counterparts whether or not I believe that the president’s trade wars are going to affect tariffs on Italian wines.

And in more recent weeks, as the build-up to Trump’s new immigration policies have come into focus, I’ve received a growing number of inquiries about immigration controls at international airports in the U.S. where flights from Europe land.

Last week, a rock band from Pesaro, Italy was refused entry into the U.S. even those the musicians seemed to have all their paperwork in order. The group Soviet Soviet was on its way to play the South by Southwest music, film, and media festival in Austin, Texas. But they were turned back at the Seattle airport after being handcuffed and detained.

Read the account of their misadventure on NPR.

I played in a rock band for many years and am well versed in the paperwork that you need to complete when you perform abroad. My group used to travel regularly from New York City to Canada to perform and, like Soviet Soviet, we were required to present documentation that we were not crossing a border in search of employment or compensation for our performances.

In all my years playing music professionally, I have never heard of a band being turned away for an issue like this.

The story was brought to my attention by an Italian wine colleague concerned about an upcoming trip to the States to show her family’s wines.

Perhaps more ominous was the detainment of good friend and colleague of mine last week at a U.S. airport where international flights land from Europe. Let’s just call him “Federico” for privacy’s sake.

Federico is a highly successful Italian wine professional who travels to the U.S. and Asia frequently. When he landed in the U.S. last week, he was told that his passport had been reported stolen by the Italian government (even though his passport was in his possession and he had not reported it missing). Immigration officials confiscated his wallet and his cellphone and detained him in a holding cell for more than six hours without any explanation.

In my nearly 20 years of working in Italian wine, I have never heard of such a thing happening. I have heard of people being sent to “secondary inspection” because there was an issue with paperwork or confusion about the purpose of their trip. But I’ve never heard of anyone being detained or having her/his cellphone confiscated.

It’s not exactly what I would call the “welcome to America” experience.

It’s too early to say whether or not a new and perhaps more aggressive culture has emerged among the immigration agents who control us when we land at international airports. But these two episodes from last week don’t bode well for Italian winemakers traveling to our country. It’s my sincere hope that they were out-of-the-ordinary instances where miscommunication led to misfortune.

Maybe, like the Trump supporter below who blocked my entry into an ecumenical parking place outside the gym yesterday in Houston, the immigration agents last week were simply having a bad day in Trump America. Let’s hope so…  

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