Not wholly blind to the problem, Congress is trying to do something. Democratic representative Howard Berman, of California, recently introduced H.R.1312, the “Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) Act,” a bill that passed the House on April 1 and is pending in the Senate. It stipulates that any visa petition from a nonprofit arts group (an orchestra, ballet company, museum, etc.) not processed within 30 days will receive “premium processing” (15 days) without the usual $1000 charge.
While a step in the right direction, the ARTS Act is, in many ways, a Band-Aid on a broken leg. A spokesperson for Berman confirms that it is “definitely more geared to the philharmonics and the large groups sponsored by nonprofits that can’t afford to pay the expedited fee,” and therefore does nothing for World or popular music. And because the vast majority of nonprofits elect to pay for premium processing anyway, it helps them only with their bottom line. The bill remains impotent in dealing with the biggest problems: consulate appointment times, opacity at USCIS, frequent name confusion (especially common in Muslim countries), and criminal-record waivers.
Rob McInturff, a spokesman for the US State Department, acknowledges the concerns. “Security measures have tightened since 9/11,” he says. “Even if it was there before, it’s certainly gotten stricter . . . that’s just a fact of the landscape.” He explains that the government does not want to discourage artists from coming, and that the ideal is to “keep our doors open while we keep our borders secure.” But while the government might strive to speed up wait times and be as efficient as possible, McInturff can’t say that the process, or the several-tiered security, will change in any fundamental way.
“Issuing visas is a large part of that [security],” he says. “Security is just — it is what it is.”
A domino effect
Compounding the issue is a near-total lack of transparency at USCIS. People who have submitted applications are told only whether their claim has been received, is pending, or is approved/denied, and no one at USCIS is able or willing to say anything more than that.
Phone calls to the offices are worthless, as the automated-menu process can literally take half an hour, only to result in the same “pending” message that is on the Web site. Pamela Feo, education manager for the Boston Philharmonic, has been navigating this process without professional help since she started her position this past year. “One of the things I find most annoying,” she says, “is that I never know exactly who to ask, and who to find information from. I feel like there’s no good resource for finding out which visa is right for people. There’s no guidance.”
When I ask King at Traffic Control Group if USCIS offers any guidance, he laughs. “If you do a certain amount of petitions a year, you might be able to understand what you’re doing,” he says. “But if you’re sitting in London trying to do this, I think it’s probably a waste of your time . . . it’s a minefield, it seems to me sometimes.”