The Visa Limbo

Last week, as the Bush administration redoubled its efforts to whip the nation into a war frenzy, Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq screened here as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. The Iranian director’s second feature is a searing critique of Saddam Hussein and his use of chemical weapons on Kurds–you’d think it would be right up George Bush’s alley. But Ghobadi couldn’t attend the festival as he’d planned–because he hadn’t been granted security clearance by the U.S. State Department.

Enhanced security measures prompted by the September 11 attacks have made it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for many international artists to visit the U.S. Over the past few months Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, Buena Vista Social Club spin-off the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and Syria’s great Arabic classical group Ensemble Al-Kindi have had to cancel performances and appearances in this country for the same reason Ghobadi did. Though all of these artists had previously visited the U.S., they were thwarted this time by vaguely defined and ever changing visa regulations, extensive processing delays, and increased expenses. Arts presenters in the U.S. have begun to reconsider future bookings–already tours by important Cuban artists like Los Van Van, Los Munequitos de Matanzas, and Pablo Milanes have been canceled under the assumption that the performers wouldn’t get security clearance in time. The effect of all this on America’s exposure to international music could be devastating.

Even before September 11 the process of obtaining a U.S. visa for a visiting artist was byzantine. The petitioner–the person organizing the tour or inviting the artist to the U.S.–had to prove the subject’s artistic merit and, in the case of many traditional international musicians, cultural uniqueness, usually by assembling press clips and testimonials from other artists and ethnomusicologists. The applicant’s case was then reviewed by INS officials. If this paperwork was in order and the embassy’s background checks and personal interviews threw up no red flags, the visa would be issued.

This procedure was hardly flawless. Critics complained that federal employees didn’t have the aesthetic wherewithal to judge artistic merit. And the INS was taking up to four months to process visa applications, which made it tough to book tours. In June 2001 the INS instituted premium processing, guaranteeing an answer within 15 days, for a fee of $1,000–an $870 markup from the regular price.

Now even the speediest INS approval won’t necessarily get an artist to town on time. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, passed in May, requires any applicant from a country considered a “state sponsor of terrorism” to receive special security clearance from the State Department before a visa can be issued. In addition to the seven countries on the department’s official list–Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Libya, and Sudan–there’s also an unofficial list of over 30 predominantly Muslim countries; all males and some females between the ages of 16 and 45 from these nations are subject to federal investigation beyond the standard review process. By this fall the new procedures had created a logjam, and artists began to miss whole tours.

Isabel Soffer, associate director of New York’s World Music Institute, which presents concerts and organizes tours, says the odds have been so bad for some artists that certain embassies have actually discouraged her from even applying for visas. This August she was able to secure INS approval for Ensemble Al-Kindi in five days, but the U.S. embassy in Damascus told her the group would never obtain a security clearance in time for its September tour, which was to include several performances at Chicago’s World Music Festival.

Soffer was also “discouraged” from trying to get clearance for Hossein Alizadeh, a famous Iranian tar player who was to tour with the Masters of Persian Music, a sort of Iranian classical supergroup that sold out 14 shows in the U.S. last year. Alizadeh has visited the U.S. a dozen times, even teaching for a while at the California Institute of the Arts. Despite the heads up, he traveled to Paris (the U.S. has no embassy in Iran) in August, presented his documentation, paid his $1,000 fee, had his interview, and got his passport stamped. Several weeks later Soffer discovered that Alizadeh’s application had been misplaced and that he would have to return to Paris and repeat the entire process. At the last minute the embassy located his paperwork and assured Soffer that his security clearance would be processed within the next seven to ten days. “Since they were so discouraging before, there was no reason for them to [provide such a specific time frame], so I believed them.” Three weeks later she was still waiting, and the other members of the group were well into their U.S. tour. (Alizadeh had heard at press time that he’d have his visa by October 18.)

While artists from countries accused of sponsoring terrorism have been most affected, they’re not alone. Brian Taylor Goldstein, a D.C.-area lawyer who specializes in artist visas, says that Daniel Gonzalez, a singer with Venezuela’s Grammy-nominated choral group Schola Cantorum de Caracas, missed the group’s recent U.S. tour when his application was flagged during the consular review. In the past, the embassy would explain the nature of the problem to the applicant–in many cases it was something as easily fixed as a typographical inconsistency. But now, Goldstein observes, any file that raises any question at all is sent to the State Department, and the applicant isn’t told why. Gonzalez was forced to miss the group’s U.S. tour.

According to Soffer, the World Music Institute has lost tens of thousands of dollars; a Los Angeles Times story claimed that each cancellation was costing UCLA, a major presenter of international cultural events, “$5,000 to $30,000 in advertising and promotional costs absorbed and profits foregone.” These losses may prove crippling to presenters in secondary markets; lacking the ethnic diversity of Chicago or New York, smaller cities already present a greater financial risk to tour presenters. Now, says Scott Southard of International Music Network, a Massachusetts-based booking agency that represents about 20 acts from outside the U.S., “they’re simply not going to take the risk and try to develop that market.” This could eventually have an impact on big cities as well. According to Southard, the secondary markets make tours by artists such as the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Youssou N’Dour financially feasible. He also suggests that if artists can’t tour here to promote their records, labels may be less inclined to work with them.

Thus far the government doesn’t seem concerned with these issues, insisting that this is an unfortunate but necessary development. “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,” Stuart Platt, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month. “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.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Carris.