As US scrambles to address visa backlog, international musicians are out of luck

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Marco Werman: Before we leave you, let’s update a story we’ve been following. Over the past few weeks, cultural events here in the U.S. have seen a number of international performances disappear from the lineups. Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, for example, abruptly lost all four of its British vocal soloists. And only one dancer from the Venezuelan dance company, Pisorojo, got to Seattle, which made the Seattle International Dance Festival that much less international. The cause for all this chaos? It’s a hardware problem at the State Department and it’s kept the United States from issuing visas for over two weeks. Matthew Covey is an attorney and runs Tamizdat, a consulting firm in New York that deals with foreign artists who need visas to perform here in the U.S. So this glitch at the State Department affected all visas, Matthew, not just visas for musicians. What is the latest, what have you heard from Washington?


Matthew Covey: What we’re hearing is that all the embassies are back online now. The hardware problem is supposedly solved. The issue really right now we’re seeing is people struggling with the backlog. The State Department reported that there were about 335,000 visas backlogged. They’re claiming that they have issued nearly 300,000 of those by the end of this weekend. So, reportedly we’re going to be back up to normal soon. I think the question really is how long are the ripple effects from the delay are going to be felt by artists who were on the road and were unable to get the visas when they had planned on it.


Werman: Well, I know in the case of King Sunny Ade from Nigeria, he was affected. He actually got his visa but his band did not. Is that going to mean big complications for artists who have been booked for concerts through the whole summer?


Covey: I think it could. The effect is going to be a little limited. So, the only people who are really affected are those who had counted on getting visas issued in the last two weeks, and given their tour schedules, they had to have them and then weren’t able to. I’m dealing with one British band right now who’s in a pretty rough situation because their tour in the U.S. doesn’t start until the middle of July, but the problem is they were planning on being on tour in Canada. So, we have to figure out how to get their visas issued while they’re on the road in Canada touring. Logistically, it’s kind of a nightmare.


Werman: Any visa troubles from the past three weeks and this computer glitch at the State Department have meant tours got completely cancelled?


Covey: There’s a Peruvian tropical bass group called Dengue Dengue Dengue! that we were working on, their whole tour got cancelled. They couldn’t get their passports back. The embassy just said, “Yeah, we’ll get them back to you as soon as we can,” and two weeks later they’re still waiting.


Werman: I know for you, Matthew, in your line of work visa hurdles are business as usual. Generally, what challenges do international musicians face when coming to this country?


Covey: When the system works, which most of the time is the case, it’s nothing more than a whole lot of bureaucratic hoops and a fair amount of expense. But really the problem is when you have an artist coming from a country that’s, for example, seen as a security risk, or when an individual has something in their record, their name matches that of somebody who’s done something wrong or they, in fact, have a prior visa violation. The kinds of delays you can see can stretch from weeks, to months, to, in some cases, years and that certainly can shut down an artist’s career in the U.S.


Werman: Matthew Covey, an attorney who runs Tamizdat, a consulting firm in New York, that deals with these issues. Thanks very much for your time.


Covey: Thanks a lot.