Locked Out

How visa procedures have blocked European musicians from the U.S. since 9-11

And imbalanced. "It's so easy for Americans to play in the U.K.," he says. "Right now, England is awash with singer-songwriters from Austin and Tennessee and New York and Boston. It costs them 90 pounds," he said. "It's very unevenly weighted at the moment."

To Smith, whose union has been among those lobbying the British government to redress the disparities, "It's still a lot longer this end to the States than it is the States here. And if you have the wrong surname, and if your parents were born in the wrong country, there are still problems."

Bettie Serveert
photo: Kees Tabak
Such visa snags can be "surreal and farcical," says Davey Ray Moor, the Australian-Brit songwriter formerly with London-based Bacharach revivalists Cousteau. Moor happened to be born in Lebanon, where his father was stationed as an accountant for the U.N., and the Beirut label on the songwriter's passport was enough to flag his 2002 visa application for six extra weeks of vetting. Worse, in the '80s—"the '80s being a rather pretentious time"—he'd changed his name from Moore to Moor: "I thought that taking the E off it would give it a whiff of mystery and intrigue, but it probably confirmed in the mind of some visa bureaucrat that I was kind of a sultry foreigner." The hold-up meant he'd eventually miss Cousteau's U.S. tour.
photo: Magnum PR

There are some signs of change, though. USCIS waiting times are gradually dropping, and up-to-date info is quickly posted to the agency's site. The service center in Vermont, which handles all requests for the Northeast, now routinely processes visas in under a month—even in cases where the applicant opts not to pay extra for premium processing. "I've been doing this for seven or eight years, and it's never been that fast," says Matthew Covey of Tamizdat, an organization that helps foreign musicians sort out their paperwork. "They're stricter, but there's a much clearer sense of what they're looking for. It used to be that it was a matter of how much you'd scream or cry or cajole. Now it's a much more systematic process."

Virginia-based immigration lawyer Jonathan Ginsburg agrees. "The U.S. consulates in general are doing their utmost to accommodate the arts, who really do get a degree of attention way out of proportion to the actual numbers involved." When a rock star is delayed, he says, "you're sure to read about it somewhere," and those who lack bureaucratic finesse "are the ones normally who will get themselves in the most trouble, and who will respond in the most hysterical manner."

Indeed, the "forced to cancel" mantra that accompanies many visa stories can ring false, with musicians sometimes playing the evil-empire card to cloak their own administrative failures. "Because the immigration service is faceless," says Covey, "I know for a fact that they frequently take the fall for managerial fuck-ups. I could tick off five fairly high-profile cases right now that I know that's exactly what happened."

But he's loath to name names. According to Nigel McCune of Britain's Musicians' Union, "the vast majority of artists who are relying on their career to take off in the States at some point are not really prepared to go on record about this," in fear that "whenever their name is mentioned, some red light is gonna go off and say they're the ones who were dissing the USCIS."

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