John Taylor: Lower hurdles for international performers to play here

Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of bringing many internationally touring performing artists to the area. As you might imagine, planning a tour, let alone in another country, is no small task. Stringing together a series of dates within a reasonable distance from one another that pay enough to cover food, gas, lodging, and booking agent, management, and marketing costs, with enough left over to cover insurance, rent, and other basic expenses is all part of the process. In the case of international artists, the logistical and financial burden is amplified by visa fees, vehicle rental costs, and international flights. This was the best-case scenario several years ago. Today the situation is much worse and I fear the future of cultural exchange in this country is in jeopardy if no action is taken.

John Taylor
John Taylor

To give a little background, in order to come to the United States, international performers are required to obtain visas, which are first processed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and then the State Department. Historically most visa applications were processed within three weeks; however, this changed when USCIS adopted a Premium Processing Service in 2001, at an additional cost of $2,500 per application, an expense most groups cannot afford. Since then, processing times have varied widely and have significantly increased since the onset of the pandemic, with the average processing time currently around seven months.

In addition to long delays, normal processing fees have increased dramatically over time, with more increases proposed. All fees associated with an application are non-refundable, meaning that when a tour falls through not only does the artist lose the funds they have paid for visas, but they are also unable to earn income — a double whammy. On top of that, if an international artist cannot obtain a visa in time to make a scheduled performance, the many American artists and support staff who were scheduled to work alongside the guest artist may lose a valuable source of income and artistic promotion. In the long term, tour cancellations have long-lasting harmful reciprocal effects on the ability of U.S. artists to tour, perform, and create art abroad. The ripple effect is widespread negative cultural, social, and economic outcomes.

A third issue, and more recent development, that further compounds the issues created by massive delays, inconsistent processing times, and ever-increasing fees is that more and more artists are now having to prove their “cultural significance.” When this happens, the groups then have to gather a significant amount of documentation, testimonies from leaders in their country, and information about the venues they will be performing at in the United States that supports the claim that their work is culturally significant. Not only is this a big hassle, but it also creates even more delays and sometimes increased costs if they have to hire an immigration lawyer.

In the last year every single international artist I have worked with has been impacted in one way or another. Some have had to completely cancel tours, some have had to delay the start of tours, some have had to tour without a full lineup, as not all member’s visas were processed by the time the tour started, many have had to pay the premium processing fee to expedite their applications, many have had to prove their “cultural significance”, and all have had to pay increased fees.

If you value the arts and cultural exchange I strongly encourage you to reach out to your U.S. representative(s) and senator(s), asking them to urge Congress to direct USCIS and the State Department to adopt immediate policy changes to make international artist visa processing more accessible, reliable, and affordable and to reintroduce the Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) provision, which would require USCIS to reduce the processing time for petitions filed by, or on behalf of, non-profit arts-related organizations.

With the enactment of the ARTS provision, USCIS would be required to treat any arts-related visa application it fails to process within the 14-day statutory timeframe as a Premium Processing case (additional 15-day turn-around), free of charge. This legislation would not diminish the standards by which artists qualify for a visa—it would hold USCIS to a reasonable timeframe, restore recognition that cultural interests are valued in this country, and impart sorely needed reliability to an unpredictable process that affects U.S. nonprofit arts employers and venues, foreign guest artists, U.S. supporting artists, and U.S. audiences.

John Taylor is president of Levitt AMP Galva Music Series. He lives in Cambridge, Illinois, with his family. This column is part of the Many Paths series of columns.

This article originally appeared on Galesburg Register-Mail: John Taylor: Lower hurdles for international performers to play here