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Arts Groups Look to Congress to Ease Cultural Exchanges

by Martha Hostetter, Feb 02, 2004
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In Alladeen, a multimedia production touring the U.S., artists from New York, London, and India peer into our “global soul”—at least that part of it revealed by the fact that workers in the “call centers” of Bangalore adopt flat accents and Western names in order to market products to Americans. But while global commerce may be borderless, international artistic collaborations such as Alladeen are becoming increasingly difficult and rare.

Artists who want to work in the U.S. must apply for nonimmigrant visas and prove they possess “exceptional ability” or cultural uniqueness. Since 9/11, greater scrutiny of visa applications has meant delays, extra expenses, and cancellations for foreign guest artists and their American hosts. The U.S. Visa and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (U.S.VISIT) program that went into effect last month requires digital fingerprinting, photographing, and a short interview for travelers from certain countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America, adding more layers to the process. And, because what used to be called the Immigration and Naturalization Service is now the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and under control of the Department of Homeland Security, visa applications can be denied for any reason, without appeal.

But delays in visa processing started before 9/11. As reported in a November 2002 column, the institution of “premium processing” in June 2001 complicated a system that was already loaded down with confusion and delay. Under premium processing, applicants who pay a $1,000 fee are guaranteed an initial response within 15 days. While speeding the process for some, this has diverted staff resources and lengthened processing time for most. On average, applications now take six months or more, while they used to take three. (Nonprofits may request expedited processing, without the fee, if they can prove that delays will cause them financial losses; in the case of illness or other emergency; or if the event will further the “cultural and social interests” of the U.S. In practice, however, expedited requests are rarely approved.)

Even though few can afford to, many arts groups now pay for premium processing for fear of incurring greater expenses down the road. Last summer, a U.S. tour of the Peking Opera had to be canceled after the Chinese artists failed to win visas (it was feared they would try to stay). The producers lost more than $500,000 in upfront costs, in addition to forfeiting ticket sales.

According to Sandra Gibson, president of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, there’s been a drop in the number of applications approved for guest artists. “We’re seeing more issues arising on the consulate and embassy side,” Gibson says. “Visa applications get through the initial approval process, then there might be a request for more evidence. Some artists are finding it more difficult to get interviews at the consulates, or have to travel to embassies to do them, which of course means added expense.” In many countries, new security regulations are taxing the resources of consulates and embassies, which have long been understaffed. (The 9/11 commission found that, in 2001, a single U.S. consular official in Saudi Arabia had to perform about 200 interviews a day.)

Visa problems have been particularly acute in the world music scene. Artists from countries like Mali and Cuba are often ill equipped to pay extra costs or navigate the convoluted processes of visa application; at the same time, their biggest fan base may be Americans and their countrymen living here. Bill Bragin, director of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, recently produced GlobalFEST, an evening of showcase performances that involved 16 musicians from several countries. The event was designed to support world musicians -- for whom touring has become “fraught with tension,” Bragin says -- and to build a network of presenters in this country. In theory, sharing the administrative burden and expense of sponsoring foreign artists could make world music more commercially viable.

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the American Symphony Orchestra League have created a Web site to aid the performing arts community. The site, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, offers guidance from immigration lawyers and tax attorneys for navigating the ever-changing rules for sponsoring foreign guest artists: “U.S. immigration law is complex and confusing,” the visa application process is “prone to errors, inconsistencies, and delays,” and even a typo can get you disqualified.

Arts advocates are also lobbying Congress for some relief. Artists are a small constituency—each year about 30,000 apply to work here—but their problems mirror those of others involved in international relations. “It’s the same argument for artists and businessmen,” says Gibson, who in addition to heading the Association of Performing Arts chairs the American Arts Alliance.

Arts advocates have won the support of Senators. Hatch (R-UT), Kennedy (D-MA), and Chambliss (R-GA), members of the Senate Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over immigration. The three senators sent a letter to the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last March urging changes to the visa process for foreign artists. The agency has been studying the issue and Wiliam Yates, its new director for operations, has promised to respond shortly. The senators are requesting administrative changes to streamline the visa process: allowing artists to file applications a year before the proposed date of enrollment, which many say is a more realistic time frame for production schedules; mandating a maximum of 30 days for processing; updating the I-129 application form and instructions to reflect current regulations (they are now outdated and misleading); and implementing uniform policies, procedures, and training at immigration service centers.

Last month, the Arts Alliance launched a campaign asking the major presidential candidates to sign a pledge “to promote global cultural diplomacy and exchange” and “stimulate the circulation of arts and ideas.” Implicit in this is the assumption that cultural exchanges are good not just for the arts, but for international relations. “At a time when we’re securing our borders, we have to have room to exchange ideas and traditions,” says Gibson. “We’re hearing that many parts of the world don’t understand our culture.”

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