Dance Magazine: “Is the US Government Cracking Down on Artists’ Visas?”

by Joseph McKeown

Throughout the past year, dancers and US-based theatre companies have been experiencing delays and denials in attempts to obtain approvals for performances in the US. In late March, the Joyce Theater's annual gala performance had to include a last-minute substitution after two Paris Opéra Ballet dancers were unable to obtain visas.  "It was a shock," Linda Shelton, executive director at The Joyce Theater, tells Dance Magazine. "In all 25 of my years here, I think we'd only been turned down once before. That was ages ago and we already had a feeling that dancer wouldn't be approved anyway, because of an issue with their passport. This was just a big, big surprise." Then, less than a month later, visa petitions for Bolshoi Ballet stars Olga Smirnova and Jacopo Tissi to perform at the Youth America Grand Prix gala were denied. Last year, South Korea's Bereishit Dance Company had to cancel a performance because of similar issues. 

Although many are concerned about a “crackdown on artist visas" under the Trump administration, Brandon Gryde, director of government affairs for Dance/USA and Opera America, says it’s more likely the result of an overburdened US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) and increase in visa petitions filed with the agency.  "It's certainly not a direct attack on the cultural community," he tells Dance Magazine. Geoffrey Smith, former board chair at the Washington Ballet and a lawyer with decades of immigration experience working with ballet dancers and companies, says USCIS doesn’t make filing petitions for artists, especially dancers, easy. "The whole system is a kind of trap for the unwary," he says. "One of the problems that we have with both the O and the P visas is that the forms you file for those are the same forms you file for a professional tennis or baseball player. USCIS tries to make one size fit all, which generates ambiguity." Los Angeles–based immigration attorney Rachel Wool cites President Trump’s "Buy American, Hire American" executive order as having some effect on petitions for artists. "The bar has risen for initial O-1 applications as well as renewals," she says.

As one way to help artists process visa petitions more quickly, the Performing Arts Visa Working Group has been promoting The Arts Require Timely Service Act of 2018, proposed by Senators Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy. The act would require USCIS to adjudicate O or P petitions for those in the arts within the fifteen-day premium-processing period free of charge for any O or P visa petitions that were not adjudicated in a fourteen-day period. “The Arts Require Timely Service Act, or ARTS Act, will simplify visa processing for such performers so that our performing arts groups can have greater certainty as they seek to bring world-class artists to our state,” Senator Hatch says. With this act, nonprofit arts organizations would also be spared the $1,225 premium processing fee that many cannot afford. Gryde says of the act: "That would be huge."

It has always been difficult--much more difficult than it should be,” Christine Tschida, the artistic director for the Northrop Dance Series, says about the process for artists to obtain permission to work in the US. “More byzantine and so much more expensive than it should be. And it has only gotten worse…but it’s tremendously important that we share the work of other cultures, that we welcome other voices. It enriches the work of our own American artists.”