Feds Pump Brakes On Artist Visa Hike: What Happens Now?

It’s as true in the dorm room as it is in the halls of the Capitol: deadlines force action.

There is of course dramatic difference in the scale of calamity that can be wrought by a deleterious sophomore and a Congress that manages to be simultaneously (and paradoxically) ho-humming and grandstanding about expiring debt ceilings. Nevertheless, the hypothetical essayists and the very real lawmakers both reach for the same salve: the blessed extension.

Kicking the can down the road has the dual benefit of removing the immediate peril while making the still-extant problem the future’s problem.

Less cynically, buying more time opens a window to finding a permanent solution.

Thus, there were sighs of relief when the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service announced a delay of a much-derided plan that would drastically increase the cost of visas for international performers to work in the United States.

Agency officials informed congressional leaders in mid-July that the rule will not go into effect until March 2024 and “is in talks to lower the rate increase altogether,” according to the office of freshman U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost. The Florida Democrat, who has live industry experience and earned a measure of internet virality when he performed “Misery Business” with Paramore in June, led the charge against the proposal earlier this year.

Under the proposed change, the cost of a petition for an O-type visa would leap from $460 to $1,655, a 260 percent increase. For a P-type visa, the petition fee would jump from $460 to $1,615, a 251 percent bump. 

Both increases are fueled by a $600 charge aimed at funding the U.S.’s asylum regime.

DHS and USCIS said the surcharge is necessary because of the Biden Administration’s desire to set up a special parole program for asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. 

“USCIS’s decision to delay their proposed rate hikes and go back to the drawing board is the right move to support our nation’s small business community and for the hundreds of thousands of traveling artists who are a critical part of our local economy,” Frost said in a statement. “I will continue to work with the Administration to fight for the emerging and traveling artists, independent venues, and small businesses that are an integral part of the fabric of Central Florida.”

Septeto Santiaguero At GlobalFest 2024
DESCARGA: Son cubano group Septeto Santiaguero performs during GlobalFest 2017 at New York’s Webster Hall. Pictured are, from left, bandleader Fernando Enrique Dewar (in hat) on tres, Giraldo Bravo Ramírez on percussion, Inocencio Heredia Castillo on maracas, Rudens Matos Matos on guitar and Gabriel Montero González on congas. Photo by Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images

When the rule was initially mooted, there was significant pushback, in particular from Canadian and Mexican artists who frequently do cross-border tours, from smaller venues and the acts which rely on them, and from festivals, venues and promoters that work with larger ensembles, as the proposal would have required more applications (and therefore more fees) than under the previous visa regime for large groups, such as orchestras.

NIVA, coming off their convention in Washington, D.C., vowed to keep fighting the proposal.

“The USCIS proposal to drastically increase visa fees for international performers poses a severe economic and cultural threat to independent live entertainment in the U.S. It undermines the vital role these performers play on our stages,” said Stephen Parker, NIVA’s executive director. “A 2023 survey of independent venues, festivals, and promoters revealed that international talent accounts for over a quarter of performances at an average venue and can even make up 100 percent of performances for Latin music promoters.”

Ideally, the delay will buy time for all stakeholders to find a suitable middle ground. As Frost told Pollstar in March, it’s not that he and other Congressional Democrats who have been beating the drum against the increase oppose the asylum program, but “we can’t pit issues against each other.”

Plus, he said, performers facing such a sharp increase may choose to skip touring the U.S. instead of swallowing the charge.

“It’s just going to be a large group of artists who aren’t coming,” he said. “It’ll probably just even out and be a lose/lose situation. … USCIS isn’t going to get what they are looking for.”

When USCIS and DHS first made their proposal public in January, there was a rush of performers filing visa applications to get in under the wire on the lower fees. There’s some more breathing room now, but until there is an ultimate resolution, the uncertainty — and the panic — will continue. And it’s not just the increase in fees that prompts consternation: it’s the often cumbersome, inefficient and time-consuming process that frustrates artists and their teams.

“Additionally, wait times and uncertainty around visa processing are causing international artists to forgo touring the U.S. entirely, resulting in not only the loss of cultural exchange and all its richness, but also a portion of the billions of dollars generated by the creative economy in local communities across the country,” Lisa Richards Toney, president and CEO of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, said. “For these reasons, it is vital that the visa process be reliable, affordable and predictable.”

But even that is a competing interest: it’s difficult to increase a process’s efficiency without also increasing its price. 

It’s hard to imagine a solution that checks every box for every interested group on every side of the debate; it’s even harder to imagine that USCIS’s punt turns into an all-out retreat. It’s been the department’s position all along that the artists’ employers will pay the increase, but the reality is those costs will be borne by ticketbuyers.  That makes for a little irony — though not a comforting one — as the Biden Administration has vowed to take on stealth fees. Perhaps international artists will break out the per-ticket cost of their now-pricier visas in the fee disclosures.