What You Can Do Today to Help Artist Immigration

Two petitions could move the needle before the American government creates a worldwide catastrophe for artist immigration.

Workshop participants in New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship. Photo: Héctor Álvarez.

Arts organizations need to work fast if they want to have a say in the federal government’s proposed changes to visa filing fees and immigration forms — if enacted, these changes will impact our sector. Among other changes, the government proposes to charge 21% more, on average, for certain filing processes, and then to use those additional funds to support increased fraud investigations and raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CPB).

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While US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has asked for public comments on these proposals, it has reduced the normal public comment period by half in this case; the window, originally closing in mid-December, is now extended to Dec 30, 2019. Those who comment have the option of selecting one of two methods for doing so:

  1. Via Federal eRulemaking Portal, following site instructions; or
  2. Via snail mail to: Samantha Deshommes, Chief, Regulatory Coordination Division, Office of Policy and Strategy, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Mailstop #2140, Washington, DC 20529-2140. (Commenters should reference DHS Docket No. USCIS-2019-0010 in their correspondence.)

The good news: US arts organizations are responding collectively. Tamizdat, a nonprofit arts groups that facilitates and advocates for international cultural mobility, is taking a lead. Here is what Elizabeth Moller, Tamizdat’s Counsel/Legal Fellow, recently shared with me in an email group:

Tamizdat opposes the proposed regulation that would drastically increase USCIS fees for arts petitioners with no mention of efforts to improve USCIS’s artist visa processing services.

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Tamizdat is currently organizing a petition letter and is asking US-based arts organizations to sign. Additionally, the League of American Orchestras is hosting Artists From Abroad, and has coordinated a similar letter. Heather Noonan, Vice President for Advocacy at the League, shared her thoughts with me in an email as well:

International cultural activity is an essential component of a vibrant US arts sector, which depends on the visa process to be reliable and affordable for arts organizations of all sizes. The changes proposed by DHS would create new barriers at a time when the US should instead be addressing long-standing issues with the artist visa process.

Noonan also shared some of the key points of the letter:

  • We object to the dramatic and disproportionate fee increase proposed for O and P visa petitions.
  • Any fee increase must be accompanied by immediate and measurable improvements to the O and P artist visa process.
  • Immediate action is needed to reduce the regular processing times for O and P visas.
  • The DHS proposal to lengthen the Premium Processing Service timeframe from 15 calendar days to 15 business days will diminish the service provided to petitioners, even as the cost of Premium Processing increases.
  • Reinstate the traditional expedite option for nonprofit entities seeking to further the cultural and social interest of the U.S.
  • The newly-proposed Form I-129MISC for P visas threatens to create new inefficiencies in artist visa processing.
  • Imposing a 25-beneficiary cap for arts ensembles unfairly multiplies costs for performing arts organizations and creates new risks for USCIS confusion and processing delays.
  • USCIS must take steps to adequately inform petitioners and train USCIS personnel well in advance of implementing the fee increase schedule and related changes to the Form I-129.
  • High costs, delays, and unpredictability in the visa process create high economic risks for US nonprofit arts organizations and the local economies they support.

Tamizdat and the League collaborated on mutually reinforcing comments during the letter drafting processes. Both letters emphasize how the proposed changes, particularly for nonimmigrant artist visas, would have financial and logistical impacts on US arts organizations.

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Another, perhaps more central area of impact is on migrant artists themselves. The process of getting to the US for immigration, refugee, asylum and non-immigration purposes are all onerous, expensive, lengthy and socially and emotionally wearing in and of themselves. I know this from the artists I am working alongside for New Neighbor Arts Entrepreneurship, a six-month pilot project sponsored by the US Department of State. The project is similar to the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), but it’s intentionally smaller in scale and built to catalyze future endeavors by participants.

In today’s political climate, with the highest number of worldwide displaced persons in modern history, artist mobility and integration is more important than ever. According to a declaration by the Safar Fund (Arab world), Art Moves Africa (Africa), CEC ArtsLink (US), the Russian Theatre Union (Russia), Arts Network Asia (Asia) and the Roberto Cimetta Fund (Euro-Arab zone):

    • Mobility contributes to artists’ and cultural operators’ freedom of expression and freedom of choice.
    • Providing travel support for individual artists and cultural activists helps protect the diversity of cultural and artistic expression.
    • Facilitating face to face encounters is necessary to set up long term partnerships or alliances based on trust, reciprocity and fair exchange.
    • Mobility of artists and cultural operators serves the public interest and local development.
    • Mobility can provide creative learning opportunities that are crucial for the healthy growth of individuals and communities.
    • In addition to long-distance mobility, local and regional mobility initiatives contribute to enhancing a shared sense of humanity.

In their declaration above, these organizations further affirm that they “seek to address imbalances and obstacles to mobility by enabling connections between cultural practitioners and the wider community.” Part of addressing imbalances and obstacles is advocating for improvement to the immigration and visa processes for artists; such advocacy has become a responsibility for us all in arts and culture, especially in the US.