Bureaucracy Surrounding Artist Visas Creating Grassroots Foes

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In the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the process of obtaining visas for foreign artists to work in the U.S. has not only become significantly more bureaucratic and time-consuming, but considerably more costly.

During this period, a substantial body of commentary has been generated in response to this issue. One incisive story, for example, ran in The Village Voice in early 2005, two days before President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, and focused on the government’s attitude toward Cuban artists. According to the Voice, the Bush Administration was “using artists’ visas as an offensive tool to implement foreign policy.”

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The following year, the New York Times covered the testimony of Yo-Yo Ma to Congress. Ma made the point that…

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Concert and dance presenters, festivals and countless smaller organizations — often those who can least afford it — have had their budgets burdened with new immigration costs. Anecdotes abound about tours that have been canceled because the artists did not receive visas in time or did not want to pay the extra costs, or because the presenters did not want to risk a cancellation. Other artists have simply decided not to try to come.

And for those organizations that choose to persevere, the budgetary resources can be shocking. The Times story cited the $5,000 cost for two Iranian musicians to perform in the U.S., which included more heated hoops to jump through than lions at a circus. The Times further cited the case of the Hallé Orchestra, where the costs topped $80,000 before the organization decided it was easier not to visit American shores.

A 2007 story in the Washington Post drilled down even further. There was the tale of the Peking Opera of Jilin and how a $250,000 tour become bogged down in diplomatic minutiae. True, a spokesperson for the State Department argued that when specific performance dates are at stake, there are “procedures to get people in quickly,” but that hasn’t aided the situation to any major extent. Indeed, the Washington Post included statistics suggesting that the percentage of arts-presenting organizations interested in importing foreign artists had dropped precipitously — and that, of course, was before the worst of the recession took hold. A 2008 story, again in the New York Times, noted that things were not getting easier for foreign artists — and that at least one country of note, China, had figured out how to exploit “fortress America” for local profit. And that’s on top of the government’s policy of expediting the process for a cool $1,000.

This past April, Americans for the Arts called on Congress to really do something about the entire situation, beginning with passing the Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) Act (HR 1785 and S 1409). The law would, AFTA explained, would require U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) “to reduce the total processing time for petitions filed by, or on behalf of, nonprofit arts-related organizations to a maximum of 45 days.” AFTA also called on Congress, along with the entirety of the Obama Administration, “to persuade USCIS to take immediate administrative action to improve the artist visa process.” The legislation continues to languish in Congress. To read more about what AFTA thinks should be done, click here.

Perhaps that is why some additional arts-advocacy organizations are taking action — putting heat on the Democratic Congress before the xenophobic radical right inflicts midterm-election pain. In May, the Performing Arts Alliance, a 30-year-old national network of more than 18,000 members comprising the professional, nonprofit performing arts and presenting fields, posted an advisory message regarded some of the streamlining ideas they, along with most other service organizations, would like to see put into place. The document, though distractingly jargon-heavy, offers some powerful insight into the dysfunctional of the current foreign-artist system.

Now, the Performing Arts Alliance is taking an additional tack: opposing the raising of fees for visa processing forms, which would begin at $325 per artist and reach as high as $1,225 per artists — formidable numbers for arts nonprofits in fiscally constrained times.

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“The performing arts community,” the email reads, “is urging USCIS to immediately make long-overdue improvements to the regular artist visa process and to refrain from increasing the already-unaffordable Premium Processing fee.”

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There is a public comment period before the increased fees are enacted, ending July 26. Therefore, seeking to extract maximum advantage, the Performing Arts Alliance included in its email a sample message that one may personalize:

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Re: DHS Docket No. USCIS-2009-0033

We call upon USCIS to make immediate and long-overdue improvements to the regular visa process, including meeting the current 14-day statutory requirement for processing times of regularly-filed O and P petitions, and improving the quality of petition adjudication. Any increase in the regular processing fee must be accompanied by these improvements.

USCIS failure to make improvements in the regular petition process has resulted in delays and unwarranted requests for evidence or denials, which force some organizations to pay the $1,000 Premium Processing Service (PPS) fee. This $1,000 fee is already unaffordable — particularly in this difficult economy — therefore we oppose the USCIS proposal to increase the PPS fee to $1,225. Given the harmful inefficiencies of the regular petition process, this increase in Premium Processing would impose an extreme burden on nonprofit performing arts organization petitioners.

By inviting foreign artists to perform, performing arts organizations provide American audiences the opportunity to experience a diversity of artistic talent and encourage a supportive climate for U.S. performing arts organizations to perform abroad. Arts organizations in every area of the country must rely on the U.S. visa process to be affordable, reliable, and efficient.

All of this, then, leads to a question: Should the government use the process by which foreign artists are granted visas to visit the U.S. as a revenue-enhancement tool? What is the net effect if more and more organizations see little utility and aesthetic and fiscal benefit from importing foreign artists? To what degree should the government control how and in what ways the American people are exposed to foreign artists? How do we best balance the need to interact with foreign artists with the obvious need to protect the nation?

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