Citing a COVID shortfall, DHS increases visa fees for touring artists

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Statue of Liberty seen through a fence
Seen through fencing, the Statue of Liberty stands on Liberty Island August 14, 2019, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

While it's still unknown when musicians and touring artists will again be able to perform in venues, those based abroad and hoping to tour the U.S. will face increased costs in order to legally do so.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, announced the change in the Federal Register on Sep. 3, just ahead of the Labor Day holiday weekend. It mandates that fees to obtain O and P visas, which cover individual artists and groups respectively and allow them to work for a period of time in the U.S., will be increased by around 50%. An O visa, which applies to "Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement," will increase in price from $460 to $705, a 53% increase, while the P visa, which generally applies to groups or "culturally unique" artists, will increase from $460 to $695, a 51% increase.

USCIS explains that it "conducted a comprehensive biennial fee review and determined that current fees do not recover the full cost of providing adjudication and naturalization services," going on to say that the new rule stems from projections showing "that USCIS would receive $1.1 billion less in non-premium revenue in the second half of the fiscal year [2020] than previously forecast. USCIS cannot absorb that large of a revenue loss and have enough funding to sustain operations at the same level as prior to the pandemic."

"The bigger problem," says Matthew Covey, an immigration attorney with the non-profit Tamizdat, "is that INS and later USCIS adjudication of the O and P regulations has become so arbitrary and onerous, that most arts institutions have been forced to hire attorneys to manage the process for them. As such, presenting performing artists in the U.S. now comes with massive legal costs which are — in our opinion — a catastrophic financial impediment to cultural exchange."

In 2017, the Dept. of Homeland Security began more stringent enforcement of a common "workaround" used by artists, the Visa Waiver Program, or ESTA, which allowed individuals and groups into the country as non-working tourists. The program was commonly used by emerging artists to perform at non-paid industry events, like most concerts that take place during South By Southwest. However, a performance, whether paid or unpaid, is classified as work by USCIS. This renewed enforcement, at a time of wider shifts in immigration policy, resulted in several music groups being deported or denied entry.

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4 Photos

  • Glass Animals perform in The Current studio
    Glass Animals in The Current studio in March 2020. Based in the U.K., Glass Animals are an example of artists who would be affected by new visa fees. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
  • Lianne La Havas
    U.K. artist Lianne La Havas performing in The Current studio in 2015. New visa fees would have an effect on artists including La Havas. (MPR / Nate Ryan)
  • Courtney Barnett performs at Rock The Garden 2019
    Australian artist Courtney Barnett performing at Rock The Garden 2019. New visa fees would affect Barnett and her band. (Helen Teague | MPR)
  • Half Moon Run perform in The Current studio
    Canadian band Half Moon Run performing in The Current studio in January 2020. They, along with other Canadian artists like New Pornographers, Metric, Arcade Fire, Stars, Sam Roberts Band, William Prince, the Small Glories, the Dirty Nil, Kathleen Edwards and several others could be affected by higher visa fees once live-music tours return to the United States. (Nate Ryan | MPR)