Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

"Arts and culture is something that carries with it a patina of goodness and purity, but it can be misused, and it's our job to see if somebody is trying to do that."

So said Stuart Patt, Consular Affairs Bureau, U.S. State Department

New Yorkers tend to take the international arts scene for granted, hardly considering the legal and administrative hurdles that need to be surmounted in order to bring an Iranian film director or a Brazilian dance troupe to our city. Lately, however, producers have had to deal with more headaches than usual to secure visas for visiting foreign artists. The process has become slower and more complicated, which has had a chilling effect on cultural exchange at a time when it is desperately needed.

For foreign artists to work in the U.S., they must apply for s visa. To be approved, they must demonstrate "extraordinary ability in the arts" as evidenced by awards, critical reviews, or professional affiliations. They might also be approved if they are planning to take part in reciprocal exchanges, or if they can be considered "culturally unique," like Balinese puppeteers.

Premium Processing

In response to complaints that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is understaffed and unresponsive -- torn between its mission of enforcing immigration laws and providing services to legal immigrants -- the agency instituted the premium processing service in June 2001. For $1,000, the service guarantees an initial response within 15 days.

The result, however, is ironic. Speedy processing for the few has slowed processing for the rest. According to Heather Watts, director of government affairs at the American Symphony Orchestra League, while normal processing used to take 45 to 60 days, it now takes on average four months, far too long to accommodate many performance schedules. To cope, many orchestras apply as early as allowed by law, six months, and then, if they don't receive an answer and become nervous, pay the premium processing fee. Like most nonprofits, orchestras cannot really afford the added expense, but, according to Watts, "it's the uncertainty that is most frustrating."

In the event of illness or another unforeseen event, a nonprofit can file to expedite the visa process without the $1,000 fee, but they must be able to demonstrate that failure to expedite would result in serious financial harm.

Most arts groups have difficulty proving that a single incident will cause undue harm; the administrative and financial repercussions of the delays tend, rather, to have a cumulative effect. Many applicants also complain that the expedite requests are treated inconsistently by different consulates. Some artists' unions have begun to bargain for lower processing fees for their members, a troubling trend for independent and non-union artists.

Heather Watts and other members of the American Arts Alliance, a consortium of nonprofits arts service organizations, are lobbying Congress to reduce the maximum period of certain categories of visas to 30 days and to standardize the implementation of the expedite rule. However, the concerns of the arts community must compete with larger battles over immigration reform and the Homeland Security Act, which is still deadlocked in the Senate.


The terrorist attacks put the INS on the defensive and further complicated visa processing. After a review of its procedures, the State Department announced this August that increased scrutiny, supplemental applications, extensive background checks, and other measures will slow visa processing in many cases. Applicants from countries considered by the department to be sponsors of terrorism, such as Cuba, will face longer waits -- as in September, when Chucho ValdĂšs and 21 other Cuban musicians missed the Latin Grammy Awards because their visas were not approved in time. A well-known Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami, was unable to attend the premiere of his film at the New York Film Festival.

The INS is not targeting artists; there have been similar incidents involving scientists and business executives. But the extra time and costs of visa application are having ripple effects in the small and cash-strapped arts community.

A Difficult Exchange

When the theater director Roberta Levitow became involved in the Three Continents Workshop last summer, which brought together artists from Poland, East Africa, and the U.S., she had "an inkling" that the visa process might be hard. But, she said, she couldn't have anticipated how difficult it would be. Deborah Asiimwe, a Ugandan playwright who was invited to attend the workshop, was denied a visa from the U.S. consulate in Kampala three times. She came to the consulate armed with an invitation from the hosting organization in the U.S.; later she brought a contract from John Hopkins University, which had hired her to write radio plays for its AIDS awareness campaign, and a letter from the National Theater of Uganda, where she was scheduled to direct one of her own plays later in the fall. These documents were intended to show that Asiimwe was financially secure and grounded in Uganda. Long-time INS regulations dictate that, if an individual cannot demonstrate sufficient family, financial, or professional ties to their home country, a visa application must be denied. Asiimwe was approved, on a fourth attempt, after Levitow convinced her senator to call the State Department and threatened to file a grievance against a consular official who had proven particularly intractable.

Levitow points out that the INS regulations, while perhaps grounded in the realities of developing-world immigration, discriminate against artists, who tend to be young, unmarried, and freelance. In order to get a visa for the workshop, Mrisho Mpoto, a member of a Swahili-language company from Tanzania, moved his intended wedding up a few years and made sure to document it. Even so, he was made to sing and dance in front of consular officials to prove he was a performer. Levitow also notes that the workshop's Polish participants, who like the Africans were young and relatively poor, were offered 10-year visas from the U.S. consulate in Warsaw. It's hard not to conclude that Islamic influences in Uganda and Tanzania, memories of bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, fear of AIDS, and plain-old racism played a role in the experiences of Assiimwe and Mpoto.

One-Way Street?

To add another wrinkle to the visa story, many American artists feel that cultural exchanges tend to be one-sided, so that while international artists of all stripes are hired to perform in this country, far fewer American artists find work abroad. American directors resent, for example, when a production they originate travels to the U.K. but the British producer declines to hire them to direct it. Broadway producers, by contrast, seem to favor British directors. The Actors' Equity Association maintains an exchange program with British Equity to regulate the alien-to-U.S. actor ratios in productions.

If there is an imbalance in cultural exchange, it's too bad; artists are some of our best ambassadors. Apart from the "culturally unique" products emanating from Hollywood, it might help to send some of our talented artists abroad to break down the current climate of misunderstanding, resentment, and fear.