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Panel Tackles Processing of Foreign Artist Visas

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Of the panels convening during the 46th annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), held Jan. 11-14 at the New York Hilton, "Global Artistic Exchange in a Time of Turmoil" offered foreign artists--and those wishing to show their work stateside--a chance to share views, pose ideas, and let off steam.

As previously reported last fall in Back Stage, performing arts presenters nationwide continue having great difficulty obtaining visas for foreign artists from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). What already was a difficult situation before Sept. 11 has only intensified, presenters say, with things more maddening now than ever.

To streamline the process, in June 2001 the INS instituted a Premium Process Service, allowing business organizations to pay a $1,000 fee to obtain approval or denial of visa requests within 15 days. Unfortunately, nonprofit performing arts presenters are hard-pressed to indulge in such expenditures, especially during a time of severe funding cutbacks across the board. Moreover, the service has inadvertently exacerbated the situation for those unwilling to pay, with average processing time now clocked at over 135 days. How to solve the problem--while accommodating the government's insistence upon domestic security--was the focus of the panel.

Moderated by Cora Mirikitani, a nonprofit administrator who is president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the panel included immigration experts, activists, and artists. Among them: Rick Swartz, incoming executive director of the American Arts Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group spearheading efforts to facilitate the visa quagmire; Dr. Faouzi Skali, founder-director of the Morocco-based Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, and Keith Khan and Ali Zaidi of Moti Roti, a multimedia art group dedicated to "pushing the boundaries of artistic and cultural discourse."

From the start, Swartz played the firebrand, repeatedly emphasizing that "Sept. 11 changed everything--and we had better not forget that," when discussing how to effect change to the system. "Safety," he noted, "does not justify constraints upon freedom."

He added that the American Arts Alliance remains committed to passing Congressional legislation mandating changes in how the INS operates. While acknowledging the Bush Administration "probably won't agree to a legislative solution to the problem," he reiterated his belief that "grassroots efforts" may impact upon the situation, and "the power to create change lies within our grasp."

The major members of the American Arts Alliance include the Theatre Communications Group, Dance/USA, and APAP.

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