Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Changes in the border

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I really think that the nonimmigrant visa policy has been poorly planned and poorly implemented. Our Executive branch is truly incompetent. Apparently partisan hacks are not necessarily good administrators. Who knew? But it certainly changes the way the US is perceived, I bet. The story:

The Halle Orchestra, one of Great Britain’s oldest symphony orchestras, has not toured the United States in more than a decade, so spirits were high when the group secured dates at Lincoln Center and in Upstate New York for performances last winter.

But when the orchestra learned that to get their entry visas, all 85 musicians — every last cellist, oboist and piccolo player — would have to travel from their Manchester headquarters to the U.S. Embassy in London for personal interviews, electronic fingerprinting and facial-recognition scans, it scrapped the trip. Budgeting for airfare and travel costs to New York was one thing, but simply getting everyone to the embassy at the same time, along with hotel bills and fees for the visas themselves, would have cost an additional $80,000, said marketing director Andy Ryans.

“It was very simply money that we didn’t have,” Ryans explained. “We were desperate to go to the States, but our hands were absolutely tied.”

Theirs aren’t the only ones. To perform in this country, foreign artists of all stripes — punk rockers, ballet dancers, folk musicians, acrobats — are funneled through a one-size-fits-all “nonimmigrant” visa process whose costs and complications have become prohibitive, according to booking agents, managers and presenters, such as the Kennedy Center, who program and market the performers. Visiting businesspeople face similar security hurdles put in place since Sept. 11, 2001. But artists’ visa petitions also require substantial documentation to satisfy the “sustained international recognition” requirement for the type of visa (called a “P-1”) issued to many performing artists.

Arts organizations say they have become reluctant to book foreign performers because of the risk of bureaucratic snags. Advocates are lobbying Congress to pass a bill, called the ARTS Act (for “Arts Require Timely Service”), that would fast-track artists’ visa petitions.

“It’s become kind of a nightmare to continue in the international business,” said Jeff Laramie, whose Middleton, Wis.-based SRO Artists Inc. watched a three-week, $250,000 tour by the Peking Opera of Jilin — a troupe it had brought over in the past — dissolve in 2003 when the company’s visas were denied.

Presenters acknowledge that some of these artists might have gotten into the country if they had followed the regulations to the letter and filed well in advance. Delays can stem from lapses in an artist’s paperwork, or a group’s balking at an optional, $1,000 “premium processing” fee that speeds the visa ruling.

The larger problem, many in the arts say, is that so many hefty costs have to be paid before a dollar is earned at the box office — and with no guarantee that a visa will be granted. Soon after Sept. 11, the State Department rolled out its Biometric Visa Program, requiring all applicants to undergo fingerprinting and have photographs taken at the nearest U.S. consulate each time they apply. Previously, not all visa applicants had to appear in person. This new mandate is particularly costly for artists who want to perform here.

Janice Jacobs, a senior consular affairs official at the State Department, said she is aware of the difficulties that the arts world faces in getting entry visas: “If we know there’s a performance and they have to be here by a certain date, all of our posts have procedures to get people in quickly,” she said. While citing the importance of security measures, she added, “the welcome mat is definitely out for legitimate visitors.”

It is unclear how many foreign groups have canceled their tours because of visa problems, but in interviews, arts presenters and booking agents here and in other countries cited it as an urgent concern. Sandra Gibson, president of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, said her group joined with others to form an arts visa task force, which in April won the ability for artists to file for visas up to a year in advance, instead of six months, in hopes of clearing up paperwork snags well before scheduled performances.

There are 7,000 professionally staffed performing arts presenters in the country. In 2001, 75 percent of them were willing to bring in international artists — a figure that has dropped to near 60 percent in 2006, Gibson said.

The sad irony, in the view of some arts organizations and advocates, is that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on and cultural divisions abound, the unifying effects of art are needed now more than ever. But, they say, visa rules are making it harder to foster cultural exchange.

“The weight of the system is grinding down the arts world to the point where the U.S. market isn’t as attractive,” said Fairfax immigration attorney Jonathan Ginsburg, who has worked with arts groups for more than a decade.

Visas recently were denied to China’s Golden Dragon Acrobats, who have toured the United States regularly for nearly 30 years, according to agent Art Fegan of Nashville. The troupe’s latest tour was to start in September but has been held up because the acrobats “could not provide absolute proof that they would return home,” Fegan said he learned from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. (The embassy did not respond to a request for comment.)

Presenters say it is virtually impossible to bring in Burmese or Cuban artists. Performers from Iran, Syria and North Korea undergo especially tough scrutiny. But recently it has become trickier for virtually any foreign artist to get a visa. This summer, Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, the venerable dance festival in Massachusetts, said she had trouble bringing in a visiting scholar from Montreal.

A number of attention-getting British bands have fallen victim to visa woes. The girl-group the Pipettes, armed with a debut album, was slated to play at the District’s 9:30 club Oct. 10, followed by weeks of other gigs, but had to postpone the tour because of visa delays. The Klaxons, who rose to fame largely through Internet chatter before the band was even a year old, scratched a tour and an appearance at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon last November after visa delays; officials wanted more conventional proof of the band’s importance, to satisfy the “sustained international recognition” requirement.

“All I know is, these bands are playing for American citizens,” said 9:30 club owner Seth Hurwitz, “and so the only people it really hurts are our people here. I’m not sure what it accomplishes by keeping them out of the country.”

The visa laws as written “are reprehensibly bad,” said Matthew Covey, executive director of Tamizdat, a New York-based group that helps promote Central and Eastern European bands. While he blamed “music industry mismanagement” for some delays, he also said the laws do not correspond to the realities of the artists who need them — folks who are unaccustomed to red tape, are hot to capitalize quickly on buzz without waiting for bureaucracy to catch up and are frequently just plain broke.

“You don’t hear about Dow Chemical having immigration problems,” Covey said. “The arts is not a place where you’re going to attract people who are necessarily incredibly efficient businesspeople.”

The labyrinthine process is not for underfunded newbies: First, presenters or agents must compile background documents and file a petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which can take weeks or months to approve unless the $1,000 “premium processing” fee is paid; the fear of delays makes this fee virtually mandatory. Added to that are obligatory consultations with various U.S. artists’ and stage crew unions, which can total several hundred dollars or more. Then come the interviews at U.S. consulates — where performers must demonstrate that they are, in fact, artists of significance.

“Sometimes I wonder if they are the best judge of who is a real artist,” said Richard Kennedy, acting director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, sponsor of the annual Folklife Festival on the Mall. Some festival participants have been asked to perform at their consular appointments, he said, even though most come into the country on tourist visas because they are not professional and earn no fees.

Yet with the post-9/11 requirements, they, too, need to go through the consulate interviews, so Kennedy’s costs have skyrocketed. Next year’s festival, focusing on the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where there is no U.S. representation, means Kennedy must fly a hundred villagers to the embassy in New Delhi for visas.

The premium processing fee is another source of ire. The band New Model Army, veterans of the British rock scene, didn’t pay it and are sorry. The band had to cancel a national tour that was to kick off last month at the Rock & Roll Hotel on H Street NE because their visas were denied, and they found out too late to file an appeal.

Band manager Mark Walker said the paperwork was submitted as it had been for the band’s previous three tours here. But this time, months went by with no word from the USCIS, and without having paid for the expedited service, there was no way to track the materials. Just days before they were to fly, they found out their application had been denied for what Walker said was “a technicality” he easily could have cleared up if he had known about it earlier.

Isabel Soffer, programming director at New York’s World Music Institute, says she brings over fewer foreign artists now because of increasing problems such as those encountered by two clients this month. The women, minstrel singers from a remote region of Uzbekistan who are featured on the Smithsonian Folkways CD “Bardic Divas,” were to be part of a U.S. tour called “Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia.” But for reasons that are unclear, they were denied visas on the spot during a brief questioning at the U.S. consulate in Tashkent. “It took a matter of minutes,” Soffer said. (Several e-mails and calls to the consulate were not returned.)

Cambodian dancer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro and her company will perform Thursday and Friday at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center, thanks in part to her booking agent’s efforts to woo the consulate in Phnom Penh before the dancers sat for their visa interviews. A few weeks before the appointment, the dancer’s management company invited the consular officials to one of Shapiro’s rehearsals — luckily, her Khmer Arts Ensemble is based in the capital — and arranged for them to meet her.

A weak dollar means foreign artists are already poised to earn less money here than they would in Europe. The costs of the visas, coupled with the inconvenience of the in-person interviews at U.S. consulates are fostering increasing ill will toward a nation whose international public perception has already plummeted, arts presenters say.

When Paris agent Didier Le Besque brought the Ballet Biarritz to New York’s Joyce Theater last year, he said, simply getting the 16 dancers from the south of France to the U.S. Embassy in Paris for interviews cost nearly $3,000 a head.

“If the American authorities do not want the foreign artists, why beat ourselves up to go there?” he said. “There are artists who ask themselves that question.”

Written by Leisureguy

20 October 2007 at 5:35 pm

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