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Alliance Aiding Foreign Artists

The American Arts Alliance is spearheading an effort to clear the visa quagmire for foreign performing artists attempting to meet contract obligations with nonprofit organizations in the United States.

The alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group--whose major members include the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), Dance USA, and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP)--has been circulating draft legislation on Capitol Hill that could help ease the security-bogged visa process. The alliance has also met with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and is preparing to powwow with the State Department to see what relief those two important agencies can offer foreign performers.

"More than anything else, we are worried about helping foreign artists be able to meet their performance contract arrangements with our performing arts groups," Jan Denton, the alliance's executive director, told Back Stage on Tuesday. "That is our biggest worry."

The alliance's effort has included "several meetings" with the INS "so they understand how unique our position is--that we must meet performance deadlines," Denton said. "The newest wrinkle involves consulate offices under the jurisdiction of the Department of State. New security requirements are posing an additional deadline challenge for foreign performing artists.

"This has been a very difficult process, because obviously we are swept up in a whole new world of security" due to the war on terrorism, Denton continued. "We don't want to jeopardize that effort. So it has taken a significant effort to educate people on Capitol Hill, the INS, and now we're approaching the State Department at precisely the time when we think it would be valuable for cultural exchange to not only continue, but to increase."

The draft legislation proposes three major requirements:

- The INS would treat as premium processing cases any nonprofit arts-related "O and P" petitions that it fails to adjudicate within 30 days. O and P are two visa classifications in the Immigration Act of 1990, and most artists fall under the two classes. Premium processing is a sped-up method of clearing immigrants' petitions. It requires a $1,000 payment.

Denton said that, while the INS is presently attempting to help facilitate the entrance of foreign artists whose hosts can afford the payment, "those that cannot afford to pay are falling further and further behind. It used to take from about 60 to 90 days to try to get a visa petition approved. Since this new fee was made available, and since Sept. 11, some of our applicants are facing more than 120 days."

- The immigration service would have to clarify the grounds on which it is required to expedite normally filed petitions, not just the premium process. Currently the service's four regional centers "implement expedite criteria inconsistently," according to the alliance's white paper explaining the draft legislation.

- Any form of INS relief would apply to both nonprofit organizations and those petitioning on behalf of nonprofits. Most of the performing arts petitions to INS "are filed by nonprofit organizations or on their behalf by for-profit management agencies," the white paper explains. "Either way, the premium processing fee is absorbed by the nonprofit organization."

Presently, noted Denton, "If you have a performance schedule you've already printed, and you've organized contracts with foreign artists--if you're able to get this done months and months in advance--then you're organized enough to jump through these hoops. But people in the performing arts know it takes longer for the strings to come together. And to plan for 120 days-plus just to deal with the INS--and then it could take an additional month at the consulate where the artist must take the forms and get the visa--nonprofit arts organizations are going to be less and less likely to engage foreign artists because of the hassle."

New York audiences have missed out on a number of foreign artists over the summer due to the visa swamp, including performers who had been set for the Lincoln Center Festival (see Back Stage, Aug. 2, 2002, "Int'l Theatre Scene in U.S. Feels Security Crackdown"). While the media has consistently covered the problems with foreign visitors entering the U.S. during the war on terrorism, Denton's revealing the dissemination of the draft legislation appears to be a fresh attempt to actually do something about finding a national solution.

Realistically, chances of having the proposed legislation filed and rushed through the bill-approval process for this session is doubtful. Congress this week returned from summer recess and, as Denton noted, "they are extremely far behind in their work." The lawmakers still have major appropriations bills to approve. Also, on returning, they found on their desks a report from the Congressional Budget Office predicting major deficits through 2005. That will play heavy as many of the senators and all of the House members look at November general elections.

But formation and passage of laws in Congress is a slow process, usually taking several sessions to find sponsors and educate lawmakers to the bill's positive points. So look for Denton and company to keep ringing Congressional doorbells, touting the draft legislation on foreign performing artists, for many days to come. And to keep meeting with federal agencies which regulate the visa process.

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