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I was at the Irvine Barclay Theatre's New World Flamenco Festival some weeks back—and a superfine bunch of stomping, shouting, clapping and string-flailing it was—when, attempting a bit of innocent ha-ha, I asked fest associate producer Sandy Robertson, "Is it hard getting a work visa for guys who clap hands for a living?"
This was not, it turned out, a subject of mirth to Sandy. Her bureaucracy-coping skills had been rubbed raw over months of wrangling with immigration officials and the State Department to assure that the Spaniards—who were U.S. allies the last time anyone checked—would be allowed into our fine land to perform.
While it has never been a cakewalk bringing foreigners—artists, no less—into the country, Sandy told me, "It's far, far harder now after Sept. 11. You have to deal with both the BCIS [like, who knew there's no longer an INS, which was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, where the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services now handles artists' work visas] and then the State Department, and it's become much more expensive and time-consuming. What's worse is the wear and tear on the psyche, not knowing if the artists you've booked will ever be approved.
"I haven't heard anyone in the arts say they're going to stop booking international artists, but a lot of them may be thinking twice now because you very well could book an artist, market the show, sell the tickets and everything else, and then he might not get in," Sandy said. "That's a lot of risk."
Okay, I don't mind flying without scissors, and I could get to like taking my shoes off at airport checkpoints. I hope that, years from now, when terrorist threats are but a distant memory, shoe-removing will still be a tradition, sort of like the seventh-inning stretch at ball games. But it's a bad, bad thing when we're also bringing the steel shutters down on our artistic windows to the world. What's a flamenco troupe going to do, stomp America to death?
Of course, music is subversive in the deepest sense. Whether it's the troubadours of old spreading the ideal of romantic love, Sufi dervishes bringing their listeners to an ecstatic state or Iggy kicking some life into his fellow Michiganites, music and the other arts can shake you loose from your moorings, reordering your mind and how you relate to the world. You've got to cherish the things that open life up for you, and there's nothing like artistic expression from some far-flung land—that's so different, yet so the same in its humanity—to do that for you.
And for the privilege of doing that for us, world artists now have to run a government gauntlet. To get our Spanish friends into the country, the Barclay had to do the already time-consuming application work for the BCIS (which includes submitting documentation from unions and others as to the artists' unique talents and stature), as well as kick in a $1,000-per-act "premium processing" fee, without which applications can vanish into the strata for up to six months. Once an artist was approved by the BCIS, it started all over again with the State Department, for which artists are now required to submit to in-person interviews at the U.S. consulate in their country. In the case of the flamenco fest, that meant 34 folks in the far south of Spain had to hoof it up to Madrid to convince bureaucrats that they were worthy of performing here, with the travel costs further adding to the Barclay's expenses. After which there was no knowing when, or even if, their visas would be approved.
One of the reasons the fest hosted a full complement of performers was the assistance they had from San Francisco-based lawyer Bill Martinez, who, since heading a landmark 1993 lawsuit that helped open the U.S. to Cuban musicians, has been one of the nation's prime attorneys specializing in arts visas. As others have, he maintains that the Bush administration clampdown on artists' visas began long before Sept. 11 (which can partly be attributed to agencies being underfunded, understaffed and overworked) and that it has gotten far worse since then.
"It's really having a chilling effect on free speech," Martinez says. "Now, it's as hard for most artists to get in as it used to be for Cuban artists, and for Cuban and Middle Eastern artists now, it's that much harder." He points to the case of Maraca, Cuba's internationally esteemed jazz flutist. "To avoid any problems, we filed his petition in January, got it approved by Feb. 4, did the interview and everything else in March," Martinez says. That was almost six months ago, Martinez points out, and Maraca "still doesn't have a visa. He's lost 23 of the 25 shows that were planned. We had to engage six congressional offices to try to help us, and he finally got approved to come here yesterday. And this is someone who had toured here 12 times before with never a problem."
The recent Latin Grammys provide even creepier examples. Cuban nominees weren't granted visas to attend the event, and three—including bandleader Juan Formell, whose acclaimed Los Van Van has toured the U.S. repeatedly without incident—were denied entry, Martinez says, by a "presidential proclamation claiming the applicants' presence in the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States."