Crossing The Visa Barrier
The rigors of international touring can often take a toll on musicians — from long trips between concerts and adapting to different cultures, to the endless promotional blitz. But one aspect that gets less attention is the essential administrative task of obtaining work visas. Without proper paperwork, artists can find themselves stuck in a difficult, if not impossible, situation where a tour must be canceled at the last minute due to legal challenges. In our post-Sept. 11 world, the issue of work visas has deeply affected many international artists trying to perform in the United States.
"There are several steps involved in the process," explains Heather Noonan, vice president of advocacy for the League of American Orchestras. "One of them is a security screening, and then they bundle the overall visa process into two big areas. One is the employer-based petitioning process, where employers ask the [U.S.] Citizenship and Immigration Services division for approval to bring someone into the United States. Once that first half of the process happens, it is then up to the artist to complete the second half, which is getting the physical visa from the U.S. consulate abroad. …"
There are many potential logjams that can occur when attempting to obtain a work visa, so the best approach is to start as early as possible and understand the requirements.
"The background checks at our agency and a lot of these agencies are much more thorough than before 9/11," says Claire K. Nicholson, USCIS public affairs officer. "In terms of … entertainment visas, we generally process them within 14 [business] days. To avoid delays, [artists] should submit petitions at least 45 days before the date of employment, so they have plenty of time."
The Recording Academy has taken an active role in helping to alleviate issues with visa delays.
"Immigration is supposed to process these visas within 14 days by statute, and they're missing the target," says Todd Dupler, Director of Government Relations for The Recording Academy's Advocacy & Industry Relations department. "In some cases, [artists have experienced] up to six months of delays. Recently, it's gotten a lot better. … What we've done on the legislative front for the last few years working with our allies is a proposal called the ARTS Act — Arts Require Timely Service."
Dupler is hopeful that things will change as Congress tackles the controversial immigration issue. In June 2013 the ARTS Act was included in the Senate Comprehensive Immigration Bill that was passed by the Senate. Dupler says that the idea behind this proposed legislation is that if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot process visas for artists or nonprofit arts groups within 14 days, each petition would be treated as a premium processing case, which guarantees visas within 15 calendar days, but without the usual fee of $1,225 per petition.
"The idea is to try … to get [the ICE] to fall into compliance more closely with what's required of them, and not letting these long backups occur," adds Dupler. "It's fairly limited and would only apply to nonprofit organizations, so if you're a band traveling on your own it may not apply to you. But it could still have the ripple effect if it's forcing immigration to get into [the] regular practice of [complying] with these deadlines."
The premium processing service has its own set of criteria. Nicholson says that while the 14-day processing period for petitions ('O' for individual artists and 'P' for groups) is "established as a USCIS processing goal," it is not guaranteed. She adds that that there are factors outside of USCIS' control that may extend the processing time beyond the guaranteed 15-day premium processing timeframe. If that happens, USCIS will refund the premium processing filing fee.
"Because there are different agencies that touch upon the process as a whole for someone, the timing may vary," notes Nicholson. "For USCIS, it's generally a 14-day process. But then again on the other side, it might be harder to get an appointment in a particular country with the [U.S.] Consulate there. It depends."
Louna, the first major Russian rock band to tour the United States since Gorky Park more than 20 years ago, were almost forced to cancel their recent 2013 U.S. tour due to visa delays. They started the visa process two months ahead of their departure date, but according to the group's manager/producer Travis Leake, when guitarist Rouben Kazariyan went to his visa interview, he was told that it was rejected because they would be performing before "paying audiences."
"Even though the band wasn't being paid for the performance, they still considered it a work category visa," says Leake. "We had no time left, and I had to call … [Los Angeles-based] immigration attorneys Kate L. Raynor & Associates [and] they did all the paperwork, which took another week or two. They said we would be better off not doing emergency processing because it would take longer."
With four or five days left before the tour, visas were still not approved. Leake says that after his attorney pulled strings to get the approval, the Russian Embassy, which rarely gives visas to touring musicians as so few are requested, required a hard copy of the USCIS approval, which would have taken at least two weeks even by rush mail.
"The day before, and the last possible moment we could get our visas, we got them," says Leake. "The only reason we got this cooperation is [because] I reached out on Twitter to the U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and he responded back to me within a half hour. … Once the ambassador got involved, all the band had to do was drop off their paperwork. They were on tour in Belarus when their visas were ready."
Not every artist is as fortunate. As Noonan and Dupler note, there is not only an economic impact on the artists whose performances get canceled and the disappointment of fans to consider, but venues, promoters and musicians-for-hire also are deprived of income.
"I think the biggest loss is international goodwill," says Noonan. "It presents a really high risk for presenters who are contemplating [booking] foreign talent in the future, and it's a risk that most of them cannot afford to take. … I think it is really true that the climate for visa processing here sets the tone for what U.S. artists will encounter when they wish to tour abroad."
The visa issue does not just affect rock bands but classical musicians and others as well. Noonan says the highest volume of activity on the classical front comes from guest conductors, performers and soloists. But she adds that the process has improved in recent years.
"In summer 2010, USCIS leadership made a public commitment to [reduce] the processing time to that 14-day mandate, and we've seen real progress in bringing processing times down," she says. "They've also been really helpful engaging the arts community in a dialogue about what could make the process better. But our concern is that these positive trends not be episodic and that they be consistent, so we can rebuild trust in the system over time."
Naturally, musicians who have encountered trouble with the law might be worried that their next visa petition will be automatically denied. "Not necessarily," says Nicholson. "Each case is looked at on a case-by-case basis. It's not a one-size-fits-all."
At the end of the day, everyone involved in the visa process want artists to be able to come to the United States to share their talents.
"We strongly believe that these people who come over and perform enrich the cultural landscape of our nation by introducing diverse talent from all over the world," says Nicholson. "We want to see people succeed and … to show America what they've got. It's just a matter of whether they qualify under the law."
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)