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US visa rules keep artists out

Updated: 2012-04-22 07:35
By Larry Rohter (The New York Times)

Everything seemed set in March for the American debut of Pitingo, the rising young flamenco singing star: the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center had been booked, tickets and program prepared, a publicity budget spent. But when he went to the United States Embassy in Madrid to pick up his visa, he learned that his name was on the "no fly" list.

Embassy officials knew that Pitingo, whose real name is Antonio Manuel Alvarez Velez, is not a terrorist, and that the real target was someone else who shared his very common name. But procedures are procedures, and by the time the confusion was sorted out it was too late for Pitingo to fly to New York. His management and the concert promoters incurred losses of nearly $25,000.

In the decade since the attacks on September 11, 2001, American visa procedures for foreign artists have grown increasingly labyrinthine, expensive and arbitrary, arts presenters and immigration lawyers say, making the system a serious impediment to cultural exchanges.

Some foreign performers and ensembles, like the Halle orchestra from Britain, have decided that it is no longer worth their while to play in the United States. Others have been turned down flat, including a pair of bands invited to perform at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March.

Overall, according to Homeland Security Department records, requests for the standard foreign performer's visa declined by almost 25 percent between 2006 and 2010. The number of these visa petitions rejected, though small in absolute numbers, rose by more than two-thirds.

US visa rules keep artists out


"Everything is much more difficult," said Palma R. Yanni, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who also handles artists' visas. "I didn't think it could get worse than it was after 9/11, but the last couple of years have been terrible. It just seems like you have to fight for everything across the board, even for artists of renown."

A foreign artist seeking authorization to perform in the United States must navigate a system that involves a pair of government departments. Homeland Security evaluates the initial application and then the State Department, after an interview with the performer, issues a visa.

Congress requires the process to be financially self-sustaining, which in practice means that fees are typically higher than those of other countries. Homeland Security even offers an expedited "premium processing fee" of $1,225 per application - over and above the standard $325 filing fee - that is supposed to guarantee a response within two weeks, but arts administrators complain that the agency sometimes fails to meet its own deadline. They say that delays of up to six months are not unusual.

Government agencies say the enhanced procedures safeguard Americans. "We want to facilitate legitimate travel to the U.S., but we need to keep security as our highest priority," said a State Department spokesman.

In many cases delays are simply the result of a slow and cumbersome bureaucracy. But arts administrators point to other cases, especially those involving artists with recognizably Arab or Muslim names.

Government agencies deny that any discriminatory policy exists. Homeland Security "strictly adheres to a zero tolerance policy that prohibits profiling on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity," said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services at the department.

Problems emerged last summer when Tim Supple, a British theater director, took a pan-Arab ensemble to Toronto to perform the much-acclaimed new version of the "One Thousand and One Nights," a version revised to reflect the events of the Arab Spring. The company had no difficulty obtaining visas for Canada and Britain, but an engagement at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival had to be canceled when 9 of the troupe's 40 members were subjected to the additional scrutiny and time ran out.

"One has to respect everyone's right to protect their own security, but it's a growing problem that needs to be addressed," said Roy Luxford, the show's producer, based in Britain. "If all the rhetoric about open societies and cultural exchange is to be believed, then the agencies involved in that process need to own up to that."

The New York Times

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