Minnesota's Finnish guests find a rude airport welcome

  • Article by: Jean Hopfensperger
  • Star Tribune
  • October 28, 2007 - 10:54 PM

When three of Finland's most popular musicians, including one described as that country's Bruce Springsteen, arrived for a recent tour in Minnesota, they expected a quick trip through airport customs.

Instead, immigration agents at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport subjected them to more than two hours of interrogation that the musicians considered so harsh and demeaning that they filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki.

"It was almost three hours of screaming, door-slamming and accusations, according to the report I received," said Marianne Wargelin, honorary Finnish consul for the Dakotas and most of Minnesota, which has the second largest Finnish-American population in the nation.

Erkki Maattanen, a filmmaker for Finnish Public Television who accompanied the musicians on the September trip, said his questioners seemed to think the entourage was smuggling drugs or intending to work without a permit. "I kept trying to tell them why we were here, but they'd just yell, 'Shut up!"' he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at the airport declined to comment, referring questions to regional press officer Brett Sturgeon.

Sturgeon said such behavior, if it occurred, would run contrary to the agency's policy that travelers must be treated in a professional manner. The complaint has not yet arrived at the Chicago regional office, but when it does, it will be fully investigated, he said.

He speculated that the Finns could have been singled out because they were arriving from Amsterdam, considered high risk for narcotics trafficking.

The incident began about noon Sept. 13 when the artists were standing in line at the airport, waiting for their passports to be checked, said Maattanen. They had been invited to the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota for a cultural tribute to Finnish-Americans. They also planned to travel to Thunder Bay, Ontario, and several small towns in Minnesota and Michigan to meet Finnish-Americans and play music from their homeland.

Finnish Public Television, which was making a documentary about the trip, and the university paid travel expenses, said Prof. Jukka Savolainen, who was waiting at the airport to meet them.

As the artists waited in line, two immigration agents approached musician Jukka Karjalainen, whom Savolainen described as "the Bruce Springsteen of Finland" as well as a devotee of Finnish-American folk music. According to the complaint, they began questioning and yelling at him.

Sniffing dogs

Dogs were brought in to sniff the artists' bags. Each was taken into a separate room for questioning, which focused on whether they were going to earn any money on their trip.

"They threatened us with severe punishments if we talk to each other," according to the complaint signed by musicians Ninni Poijärvi and Mika Kuokkanen, "Through the walls, I can hear officers yelling, screaming. They ask about the purpose of our trip -- except we are only allowed to give yes-or-no answers. I try to talk about our plans to meet with Finnish-American folk musicians. Nobody listens. They interrupt me constantly and they yell, 'You are a liar!"'

Meanwhile, Maattanen was being questioned in another room.

"From the beginning, they said I was lying, that these guys were coming here to work," said the veteran filmmaker, who said he has travelled to the United States at least 15 times without incident. "They were shouting at me, and people were going in and out of doors. They tried to put you down mentally, to humiliate you.

"I was ashamed for their behavior," he said.

No apology

The four were eventually released with no explanation and no apology, the complaint said. They met Savolainen, who had been in an airport waiting room, and who later said he marveled that immigration agents would think that a wealthy recording artist would travel to the United States "in hopes of earning money playing acoustic music in rural Minnesota."

Strugeon speculated that uncertainty over the musicians' travel documents may have led to the questioning. Visitors from Finland are required to carry a valid passport and to fill out a visa waiver that allows them to stay in the United States for up to 90 days. They cannot work, however.

Strugeon said there may have been some uncertainty about whether the musicians would be earning money on the trip.

Two of the musicians are slated to return this year and are worried they may face other problems entering the country, in part because their passports have a big red flag. Immigration agents initially stamped "Refused Entry" on the passports, said Savolainen, and then later simply crossed that stamp out with a pen.

And organizers of the national FinnFest2008, which is expected to draw about 7,000 visitors to Duluth next summer, hope the incident won't keep these musicians from returning to Minnesota.

"There are a lot of people who want to see these musicians again," said Ralph Tuttilla, a St. Paul musician who hosted the visitors one night for dinner. "That's why some action needs to be taken."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

Jean Hopfensperger •

© 2018 Star Tribune