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By Rob Feinberg March 26, 2012

Problems remain but processing has improved

During his presidential campaign, President Barack Obama promised to "streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world's top destination for artists and art students."

To travel to the United States, foreign artists must obtain an O or P non-immigrant work visa. That process involves first submitting a visa petition to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the petition is approved, applicants are then required to interview with an officer at an embassy or consulate in their country before they are granted a visa.

However, arts advocates say that a decade-old June 2001 ruling by the USCIS made the processing time too slow for the average guest artist. The ruling created the Premium Processing Service, which guaranteed that a visa would be processed in less than 15 days in exchange for a $1,225 fee.

Arts advocates like the Performing Arts Alliance objected to the fee. "Prior to creation of the Premium Processing Service, regular O and P visa processing took an average of 45 days," the organization said in a recent statement on its website. Since the fee has been added, though, overall processing times for those unable to pay the fee have increased to "between 45 days-six months," according to the statement.

In the first three years of Obama"s presidency, a few bills were introduced in Congress that would help to speed up visa processing for foreign artists. Those bills include the Arts Require Timely Services (ARTS) Act, introduced in both the Senate and House in 2009, which would reduce processing time for all artist visas to a maximum of 45 days. The bills were referred to committee in both chambers but appear unlikely to go further before the end of the current administration.

However, in the summer of 2010, the USCIS took on the problem itself, meeting with arts groups in Washington and pledging to reduce the time for visa petition processing by its offices. According to a New York Times article about the meeting, "officials said that standard applications for O and P visas, the types most often used by performers and athletes, would be adjudicated within 14 days."

According to the the USCIS, the average processing time for both O and P category visa petitions was 4.4 weeks as of Dec. 31, 2011, which, while not the 14-day promise, is an improvement.

Andi Floyd, a paralegal for the artist immigration law firm FTM Arts Law, said that her firm"s interactions with USCIS backed up those numbers and that over the past few months, visas have been processed by the department in roughly 2.5 to 3 weeks.

However, the improvement in processing time has come with an increase in delays and denials of visas. According to a Aug. 10, 2010 Los Angeles Times article, requests for evidence and denial rates for O and P visas more than doubled from 2008 to 2009 at the California visa service center.

Floyd also said that she has recently seen a large increase in requests for evidence from visa service centers, and these types of actions can lead to lengthy delays in the visa process.

Delays have also come from foreign embassies and consulates. Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer at FTM Arts Law and author of "Artists From Abroad," a comprehensive resource for artist immigration, said that some offices will "readjudicate" visa requests, meaning that even though a visa application has been approved by the USCIS, a foreign consular officer may deny that petition or request more evidence. According to the U.S. State Department, consular officers do not have permission to do this, but Ginsburg says that many still do, leading to even more delays in the application process.

Despite increased delays from those sources, overall visa processing times have nonetheless improved.

"We really were seeing three months of processing time before, and we have certainly seen that drop," said Matthew Covey, executive director of Tamizdat, a non-profit organization that helps foreign artists obtain visas. Covey said that since spring 2011, visa processing times have been up and down but overall have improved significantly.

And unlike during previous administrations, the USCIS has worked with the arts community and has been responsive to their concerns, he said. In early 2011, the USCIS met with stakeholders multiple times to listen to concerns and attempt to work with them. There are still problems with delays, and many advocates feel that new laws are needed to guarantee positive changes will continue into the future.

"I"m very pleased to see attention has been given to the subject," said Narric Rome, spokesman for the arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts. "Clarity was given to the O and P visa process, and that resulted in change pretty rapidly."

Since Obama took office, there have been problems and complications in the visa process for artists and entertainers, and many still need to be fixed. However, visa processing times have improved, and the USCIS has been much more responsive to artist visa concerns. Though the administration hasn"t comprehensively streamlined the artist visa process, it has made significant improvements, so we rate this promise Compromise.    

Our Sources

Americans for the Arts, "Issue Brief: Improving the Visa Process for Foreign Guest Artists at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services", April 4, 2010.

Interview with Narric Rome, senior director of federal affairs and arts education for Americans for the Arts

Interview with Jonathan Ginsburg, immigration lawyer and author of "Artists from Abroad"

Interview with Andi Floyd, paralegal for FTM Arts Law

Interview with Matthew Covey, executive director of Tamizdat

Los Angeles Times, "Immigration agency working to fix visa denials to artists, others", Aug. 10, 2010.

New York Times, "U.S. Pledges to Speed Up Visa Process." July 22, 2010.

Performing Arts Alliance, "Improving the Visa Process for Foreign Guest Artists," Updated Summer 2011.

U.S. State Department, "Foreign Affairs Manual." Accessed March 5, 2012.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "Processing Times," Updated Dec. 31, 2011. Accessed March 6, 2012.

Wall Street Journal, "The Visa Dance," March 21, 2011

Thomas Congressional Library, S.1409 CRS Summary, Accessed Feb. 29, 2012

Thomas Congressional Library, H.R. 1785 CRS Summary, Accessed Feb. 29, 2012

By Lukas Pleva December 4, 2009

Bills pending in Congress

During the campaign, Barack Obama promised to "streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world's top destination for artists and art students." Advocacy groups, such as Americans for the Arts, that are critical of existing visa policies argue that because of excessive fees and inconsistent wait times, "it [is] increasingly difficult for international artists to appear in the United States."

Congress is now considering three separate bills that emphasize the importance of attracting foreign artists and would make it easier for them to showcase their work in the United States:

* H.R. 1785, introduced in March by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., sets a maximum deadline of 45 days for the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to adjudicate visa petitions filed by individual artists or nonprofit artist groups that would like to travel to the United States. Should the DHS fail to meet this deadline, the petitioners must be offered the Premium Processing Service for free. The PPS, introduced in 2001, guarantees a maximum waiting period for visa application processing of 15 days, but for a fee of $1,000. The bill is currently under consideration by the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.

* S. 1023, introduced in May by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., would, among other things, establish the nonprofit Corporation for Travel Promotion. The organization would be charged with "provid[ing] useful information to people interested in traveling to the United States, counter[ing] and correct[ing] misperceptions regarding U.S. entry policy, and promot[ing] U.S. travel." The bill also creates the Office of Travel Promotion in the Department of Commerce and requires that the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries "expand its research and development activities to promote international travel to the United States." The bill was passed by the Senate in September but is still awaiting action in the House.

* H.R. 2935, introduced in June by Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., is similar to the Senate bill in that it calls for the creation of the nonprofit Corporation for Travel Promotion. It also, however, establishes the Travel Promotion Fund and directs the "Government Accountability Office to conduct a study to assess barriers to entry into the United States by foreign travelers." The bill is currently under consideration by the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.

With the bills pending in Congress, we rate this one In the Works.

Our Sources

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