Artists Struggling to Get U.S. Visas

COVID-19 isn’t the only roadblock to going on tour.

French 79, the electronic artist from Marseilles, was supposed to embark on a U.S. and Canada tour in early 2020, including a stop at San Francisco’s Rickshaw Stop. Then it was rescheduled due to the pandemic. Then it was rescheduled again. Then it was rescheduled a third time — but this time for a different reason: French 79 couldn’t get his U.S. visa in time.

“The lawyer told us in July that the visa couldn’t move forward,” says François Gautreau, French 79’s press manager. “We had to admit that we couldn’t make it so we rescheduled again and tried to avoid fees as much as possible.”

Artists from around the world are finding themselves in French 79’s unfortunate position. The Spanish indie rock band Hinds dropped out of Chicago’s Lollapalooza at the 11th hour due to visa complications.

“We are devastated to announce we won’t make it to the shows at Lollapalooza this weekend,” Hinds wrote on its Instagram the first day of the festival. “We haven’t received our visas, even though they’re approved, [paid] and we’ve been with this process since the minute we knew the festival was going to happen in March.”

Nicolas Muñoz, who performs and records under the name boy pablo, played his Lollapalooza set karaoke-style with backup tracks because his band couldn’t get U.S. visas. Both artists are slated to play Outside Lands.

Even before the pandemic, the visa application process for artists wishing to tour the United States was onerous, pricey, complex, and often arbitrary. But travel bans and understaffing at U.S. consulates and embassies, which issue visas, have made the difficult process nearly impossible, especially for artists coming from countries under travel restrictions.

Some artists, promoters, and venue owners may not anticipate or understand visa complications, while last-minute gig cancelations strain venues that already are reeling from the shutdown.

 “The process of getting a visa to the U.S. is famously, in the best of times, pretty torturous,” said Matthew Covey, an immigration attorney and founder of Tamizdat, a nonprofit that advocates for international arts mobility. “The standard that artists have to meet is probably the highest in the world in terms of what you’ve got to prove in order to get a visa that allows you to come to perform in the U.S.”

To obtain visas, artists must prove they have confirmed work for the duration of the stay. This may come in the form of gigs or agents that vow to secure work. Artists must also prove their caliber and type of performances can’t be offered by American artists. Covey said this second standard is uniquely American — many countries grant visas to artists based on confirmed work.

Labor organizations designed these rules in the late 1990s‘ to protect American artists. Over the past 30 years, especially with the 9/11 attacks and Donald Trump’s stringent border policies, what began with benign intent morphed into a system that limits global arts mobility and culturally isolates the United States.

“Congress has ceded the control of what artists can come and work in the U.S. to USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) in a way that was never intended, and in doing so have created a massively complex and expensive system, which is a huge barrier to culture in the U.S.,” Covey said.

Policies during the Trump administration allowed consular officers to increasingly deny visas to artists from the global south, which Covey said boils down to xenophobia and racism.

In June, USCIS rolled back a Trump-era policy that allowed consular officers to deny visas based on negligible errors in applications. It also restored the ability of nonprofit organizations, such as artist-related visa petitioners, to request expedited visa processing if it’s “in furtherance of the cultural and social interests of the United States.”

These moves suggest USCIS is moving toward a more artist-friendly system.

But still, obtaining a U.S. visa almost always necessitates hiring an attorney, which is prohibitively expensive for many emerging artists. 

Noga Erez, an Israeli singer/songwriter who will play Outside Lands, successfully obtained a visa with the help of an attorney, but conceded the process wasn’t cheap. “I think for artists, especially brand-new acts, to come up with funds to apply for visas (in countries where it’s required) is tough. It’s expensive and it’s also a risk,” she said. 

New acts are unable to prove international renown, which can benefit visa applicants in certain situations. These regulations make it difficult or impossible for bands without a U.S. following to gain American fans through touring.

“You have nothing in your passport, so we don’t want you to travel. But to get things in your passport, you need to travel,” said Mikey Coltun, bassist for the Nigerien guitarist and songwriter Mdou Moctar, who will play The Chapel later this month. “There’s certainly amazing groups in other parts of West Africa, and it’s a shame that they get visas denied because it’s this weird Catch-22.”

Moctar was fortunate in that travelers coming from Niger do not face restrictions. However, the band hit obstacles in the second and perhaps most crucial portion of the visa application process: the interview.

Possibly due to understaffing at the U.S. Embassy in Niger, the band struggled to get interviews for its visa applications. The band’s manager, Dan Oestreich, emailed the embassy constantly for two months before it granted interviews.

“When we hit the roadblock of scheduling the interview, every day felt scarier and scarier that we didn’t hear back,” Oestreich said. Moctar already had rescheduled his tour four times.

Embassies and consulates across the world are understaffed due to downsizing during the Trump administration and officers returning home during the pandemic.

The Foreign Service employs 400 fewer officers than in 2015, and the number of Foreign Service Officers steadily has decreased since then, according to data from the American Foreign Service Association and sourced from the Bureau of Global Talent Management (formerly the State Department Bureau of Human Resources.)

In concert with travel restrictions, these staff cuts have created a backlog of visa applications.

“[Travel] restrictions have reduced appointment capacity during the pandemic, which has created a significant backlog of both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants awaiting a visa interview,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email. “The COVID-19 pandemic continues to severely affect the ability of embassies and consulates around the world to be able to resume routine visa services.”

Moctar and his band successfully obtained visas because Niger doesn’t face travel restrictions, the band is internationally renowned, and probably due to a pinch of luck. Other international acts take advantage of special immigration provisions. 

Some artist visas last for three years, so it’s likely many international acts performing in the United States obtained visas prior to the pandemic. If they already have visas, artists from travel-restricted countries — the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, China, India, Iran, and South Africa — can stay in a non-restricted country for 14 days and then successfully enter the United States.

Other artists from travel-restricted countries might eke by with a National Interest Exception, which the Secretary of State implemented during the pandemic to allow travelers into the United States to provide “vital support or executive direction for significant economic activity.”

“Initially, when they imposed the National Interest Exception, they were really making a channel for people essential to the COVID effort, like medical researchers,” Covey said. “Increasingly since late spring, the many embassies around the world have taken the position that performing arts events are of significant economic value and have been willing to give National Interest Exceptions to artists coming to perform.”

But the adjudication of National Interest Exceptions is stochastic at best. Covey said unknown clients with relatively unimportant gigs qualified for a National Interest Exception, while eminent performers failed to obtain a visa through this provision.  

Other acts, like the Canadian psych rock band Fleece, which will play August Hall Sept. 18, benefited from reciprocal agreements between the United States and other countries.

The American Federation of Musicians has a Canadian branch that allows artists from Canada to apply for a special type of visa and circumvent much of the bureaucracy.

But applying for a U.S. visa is arduous even for Canadian artists. Nap Eyes, the indie rock band from Nova Scotia, is still awaiting its visas to play Outside Lands in October. The band spent nearly $2,000 on the process.

“I think the timeline is a bit close for us because we were confirming our January dates until just recently, so we could only just now apply. And that’s the thing I’m a little scared about,” said vocalist Nigel Chapman. The Canadian Federation of Musicians recently upped the recommended visa processing time to 90 days from 60 days due to repeated delays.

Liana White, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Musicians, said USCIS does not communicate to the federation why or when its processing times change, so advising artists on when to apply for visas is a guessing game.

“USCIS’ processing times are a constant moving target,” White said. “We do our best based on a review of what’s happening at the time and just based on experience to come up with a reasonable timeframe.”

The result of all of this confusion is last-minute gig cancelations, which burden venues that already are struggling to stay afloat.

When artists cancel gigs, venues must invest time and money in rescheduling the acts. They also must return tickets or convince fans to attend the rescheduled date. “It’s harder and harder to pay your expenses if you have to give all the money back for tickets,” said Dan Strachota, the talent buyer at Rickshaw Stop, where French 79 is now scheduled to play in May. “Right now, we’re sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to see what will be canceled.”

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