INS regulations delay Hop artists

by Kaitlin Bell | 11/25/02 6:00am

Stricter Immigration and Naturalization Services regulations enacted in the wake of Sept. 11 may have made U.S. citizens feel more secure, but they have proved a major headache for many performing arts centers around the country -- including Dartmouth's own Hopkins Center -- which have been forced to cancel or reschedule shows by foreign-born artists who were unable to obtain visas in time to perform.

This fall, the Hop has already had two performances compromised after artists were denied entry into the United States because they hail from countries that the State Department says sponsor terrorism, according to Director of Programming Margaret Lawrence.

The Hop was forced to reschedule for April a performance by Desandann, an internationally-renowned Cuban music ensemble, and to mount its Masters of Persian Music show with only three of the four Iranian performers present.

Both Cuba and Iran are on what Lawrence described as "the State Department's shortlist of terrorist countries."

Regulations that went into effect this summer mandating increased scrutiny of visa applications from these countries require them to pass through the State Department for an examination process that can last four months or longer.

In the case of the Iranian performer, though, the delayed visa was a result of bad timing, not his being deemed more of a threat than his three compatriots, Lawrence said.

"It was arbitrary that his application went in one day later than the other performers'," Lawrence said. "That one day was the day that the new regulations went into play."

But tour manager Isabel Soffer said that under the federal government's current scrutiny, it is next to impossible for any Iranian to obtain a U.S. visa.

"Iranians are treated differently from most other human beings by the State Department," Soffer said.

Because the United States has no official diplomatic relations with Iran, applicants must travel to the American embassy in Paris twice -- once for an in-person interview and once to pick up the visa itself -- a process Soffer said is unnecessarily time-consuming, especially for artists about to undertake an exhausting touring schedule.

Indeed, arts councils and performing centers have widely criticized the State Department for not making special allowances for internationally renowned artists, even those who have performed in the United States many times before.

The American Arts Alliance, along with six other national arts organizations, is petitioning Congress to enact legislation that would cap visa processing for foreign artists at 30 days. The INS has already declared that it eventually aims to implement a 30-day processing period, but the agency has noted that organizational restructuring and tighter regulations complicate the job.

Despite claims that the INS does not grant enough credence to performers for their artistic contributions, though, there are several special categories of visas granted to foreign artists. In addition to standard O- and P-class visas, it is possible to apply as a "culturally unique artist" for a P3 visa, but this requires considerable extra processing fees and a battery of supporting materials, Soffer said.

Although Congress has proved relatively open to negotiations with arts lobbyists, the State Department guards its autonomy fiercely, Lawrence said.

"If there were ever an opaque agency, it's the State Department," Lawrence said. "They don't see themselves as being able to be pressured by lobby groups or even Congress -- that makes this whole process extremely difficult."

The lengthened processing period not only poses logistical problems for performers and tour managers, but also for the performance venues, who often lose money and credibility when they must cancel or reschedule a show, Lawrence added.

In the case of the rescheduled Desandann show, the Hop spent over $1,000 in marketing costs -- money it will have to dole out again in April -- before learning that the performers would not be allowed into the country. Also, learning of the visa delays only three weeks before the show, the Hop was forced to notify audience members and return the money spent on tickets on short notice.

Ultimately, Soffer and Lawrence stressed the cultural loss caused by the new regulations, rather than the money or extra time expended in dealing with the INS and rescheduling performances, as Americans' most significant loss.

"The last thing we need right now as a country is not to have any more access to international music, thought, perspective," Lawrence said. "If there was ever a time when we needed to be paying attention to different perspectives, this is it."

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