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How the INS is Killing Music


These days, the biggest hurdle for international artists who want to perform in the U.S. is getting their passport stamped. Even Grammy-award winning musicians have become prime victims of America’s post-9/11 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. The U.S. now routinely denies artists visas based on their ethnicity. Visa applications have become a long-form for censorship, and an expensive fee is pocketed by Uncle Sam in the process.

The government denied entry to all 22 Cuban musicians slated to appear at this year’s Latin Grammy Awards, including celebrated pianist Chucho Valdes. British rock band Cousteau arrived in New York without the band’s principal songwriter, who had the misfortune of being born in Beirut. Other casualties include ten of 28 members of an Iranian troupe scheduled for the Lincoln Center Festival and Yugoslav classical pianist Aleksandar Serdar, who INS deemed not “an artist of extraordinary ability or achievement.” On the eve of a meeting between President Bush and President Vladimir Putin, Russian members of the American-Russian Youth Orchestra were almost denied visas by the US Consulate in Moscow. The list is long and absurd, and even the blue-haired patrons of the nation’s fine arts centers hiss the president at news of yet another cancelled performance.

If you doubt this battle is equal parts security, stupidity and culture war, listen to State Dept. spokesman Stuart Patt. “The fact is, there are many people in the world who will take advantage of something like music or performing and use it for their own sinister purpose,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “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.”

Goodness and purity, let alone the patina of such, aren’t spelled out on the visa application form, but never mind: the published and ever-changing rules are daunting enough.

Artists who want to perform in the U.S. have to develop a craft, carve a career, attract representation by a premier booking agent or make a recording/distribution arrangement, and develop a fan base big enough to warrant touring the country. Applications for visas can be made once an artist has booked a complete tour, with travel itinerary and signed contracts in hand. A recording (usually) and sufficient press clips to demonstrate “unique merit and international standing” — code for “not replacing an American worker” –must also be submitted, along with an essential letter of support from an artist union such as the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) or the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA).

In other words, all of the negotiations and much of the expense are incurred before access can be guaranteed. Given the new timeline added by visa processing, tours would have to be submitted before arts centers have received their planning budgets. It defies the logic of any business plan. An oil company would never be forced to operate this way; but then, the United States has never considered the arts to be legitimate enterprise.

Applicants for temporary P and O visa categories (reserved for artists, athletes, and special workers) face interminably long delays and a shakedown for more cash. In June 2001, immigration instituted a $1,000 expedite fee, ostensibly to speed the processing of visas to worker-hungry high tech markets. The fast-track fee theoretically guarantees processing within 15 days; however, such applications take upwards of 6 months. Submit an application at the regular rate of $130 and you’ll receive a letter requesting the $1000.

The State Dept. forwards all visa petitions to the FBI’s National Security Threat List Unit. Since January, men ages 16-45 must fill out a detailed biographical form, as must all applicants from China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, and Vietnam. In addition, applicants from countries officially linked to terrorism, as well as others the State Department won’t identify, are subject to further security checks, adding at least 12 weeks to the process. It’s impossible to know whether to build that extra three months into an artist’s application process, though, since the State Department refuses to provide a list of such nations (according to the Washington Post, about 40 countries are on the list).

How are artist unions responding to their constituents’ needs? In the case of the AGMA, by implementing a service charge of its own, a whopping $250 per visa petition. To date, the AFM has not set such a fee, but attorneys expect that to change.

If an artist has the time and money, can afford to hire an immigration lawyer, and doesn’t have the misfortune to have been born in the “axis of evil,” his career still hinges on the arbitrary judgment of an INS employee. There’s no special “arts desk” to handle the 85,000 annual P and O visa requests and there are only four visa processing centers in the whole country. On any given day, an official may review petitions for students, high tech workers, athletes, touists, academics, journalists, health care workers, and business people.

“The INS has been hindering visa applications way before Sept. 11,” says Dan Behrman, the expatriate American program manager of the Montreal International Jazz Festival. “I had problems getting visas for Italian, French, Hungarian and Haitian artists as early as 1988,” he says, adding that frustrated promoters created a lobbying organization called Arts for All. “In the meantime, more American professionals suffer losses as a result, and performers have to cancel tours and take losses and humiliating aggravation.” In the last decade, visa aggravation has been a constant topic at professional networking conferences such as WOMEX, APAP, and the Folk Alliance.

When a tour is cancelled, it can cost the artist and the artist’s American representatives tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages and unrecouped expenses. Theaters go dark, hotel and airline business is lost, and music retailers lose sales. Record labels are becoming more cautious about releasing recordings by artists whose nationality might prohibit them from obtaining visas to promote recordings.

If a performer does have a philosophical stance that applies to the domestic culture war, INS staff discern it no better than they figure “artistic merit.” Bebo Valdes (Chucho’s father) is, at age 84, one of the great figures of 20th century music. He won a Latin Grammy in the traditional tropical category this year, and appears with his son in the film “Calle 54.” But he was denied a visa this fall for a highly anticipated tour that was to include appearances in Los Angeles and New York. The INS denied the elder Valdes, a Swedish citizen, because he was born in Cuba, even though he’s been an outspoken opponent of Castro since 1960.

SUSAN MARTINEZ lives in Berkeley. Her last essay for CounterPunch was the extraordinary review of Alejandro Escaveda’s By the Hand of the Father.

She can be reached at:


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