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Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté Kronos Quartet

An Invisible Wall

By Emilie Pons and Irem Karakaya

Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté performs with the Kronos Quartet in 2018.
Photo: Evan Neff

For many international musicians, traveling to and performing in the U.S. has become prohibitively complex.

“You travel a lot, you have dual citizenship, you are Muslim, and you’ve been to Lebanon, you’ve been to Tunisia, and that’s where most ISIS members are being recruited,” a security officer told saxophonist Yacine Boulares at John F. Kennedy International Airport in August 2018, according to Boulares. “That’s a lot of red flags for us.”

Yacine Boulares

Yacine Boulares
Photo: Courtesy of the Artist

Upon landing and instead of going home, the French Tunisian musician spent an entire day in secondary inspection. “He asked me everything about my whole life,” Boulares explains. “He wanted to know about every single place I had traveled to in the world. He asked me for my Tunisian relatives’ phone numbers, for the name of the institution that organized the shows in Lebanon, every gig I had played abroad in the past six years, even asked about my favorite restaurants in Brooklyn.”

Boulares has been based in New York since 2009, but his music, which draws from Tunisian Stambeli and other African traditions, often takes him abroad. He had become accustomed to high levels of scrutiny when returning to the U.S., including frequent searches. Still, incidents like the interrogation at JFK Airport represent a new level of hardship. Many musicians now say that traveling to the U.S. has become so time-consuming, so expensive, and so daunting that they have ceased attempting to work in the country altogether.

In 2016, the Trump Administration began calling for so-called “extreme vetting” of foreign nationals entering the country. Among the measures enacted were an automated scan of social media and other internet sources, enhanced scrutiny by customs agents, and the introduction of form DS-5535, which requires additional and extensive documentation of travel and employment history, plus social media handles, email accounts, and addresses. These measures, since renamed the Visa Lifecycle Vetting Initiative, have been roundly denounced by civil rights and civil liberties groups on the grounds that they are inherently discriminatory and could curtail freedom of speech.

Form I-129 Approval Rate

In May of 2018, Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) abandoned the machine-learning element of its Internet scans, but analysts still review social media and other sources, seeking to flag a quota of 10,000 people annually. The criteria for these scans remain loosely-defined; the policy asks analysts to determine if travelers will be “positively contributing member[s] of society,” but names few specifics.

Lawyer Ashley Tucker works for the not-for-profit organization Artistic Freedom Initiative. She works with “at-risk artists”—artists whose lives are endangered in their own countries. “Since President Trump’s election in 2016,” she says, “we have seen sweeping effects on immigration across the board, including an increase in detentions and deportations.”

Artists travelling to the U.S. typically apply for one of three visa types: O, P, and EB. O-1 and EB-1 visas are granted to artists with “extraordinary abilities,” while P-1 visas are designated for members of internationally-renowned performing groups. These visas have become more difficult to secure, says Tucker. “We consistently see more frequent rejections of asylum claims, and denials of O, P, and EB-1 visas.”

Immigration adjudicators also now have a mandate allowing them to deny an immigration application or petition without having to first issue a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID). This applies to cases where the required initial evidence is not submitted or the evidence of record fails to establish eligibility for a visa.

Jozef Nadj, a Serbian violinist, says he filed 100 pages of documentation when he first applied for his artist visa in 2008, and he filed 300 pages of documentation when he renewed his visa in 2013. Still, he says, it is much more difficult to obtain an artist visa now.

RFEs Completed 2015 2019

According to statistics from the Department of State, the overall number of artists’ visas issued steadily increased from 2010-2016. Beginning in 2016, however, the rate plateaued; by 2018, it had begun to drop. The result, according to many American musicians, is an overall decrease of artistic diversity and richness within the U.S. musical scene.

Looming over much of the conversation around international touring and collaboration is Executive Order 13780, widely known as the “Trump travel ban” or “Muslim ban.” The order, upheld in its current form by the Supreme Court in June of 2018, indefinitely blocks the issuance of immigrant and nonimmigrant visas from Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea, and Venezuela, the former five of which are Muslim-majority nations.

Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh has spent decades collaborating across genres and national borders, including in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He believes in artists’ ability to think “outside the box.” That includes “dealing with restrictions and the law,” he says. But while a pragmatic musician may be able to find a solution that allows them to perform, U.S. audiences are still likely to lose out. “If I am not allowed to do a project here, because of the travel ban,” he says, “my immediate next thought is: ‘Where can I do it?’”

Kinan Azmeh Clarinet

Kinan Azmeh
Photo: Connie Tsang

Though Azmeh was granted a green card in 2013, he made headlines when, on tour in Lebanon with Yo-Yo Ma in 2017, the Trump Administration announced the first iteration of the travel ban. For a time, it was unclear if he would be readmitted to the U.S. (The original travel ban was blocked by the courts before his scheduled flight, and he was able to return home.) Many of Azmeh’s collaborative projects, however, as well as those of other artists traveling from the region, have not been able to reach U.S. stages. Syrian musicians aren’t even thinking about coming to the U.S. anymore, says Azmeh—though, for many, this is nothing new. “Applying for a visa to come to the U.S. was [always] a near-impossible thing,” he says. “They knew they would be rejected; it’s in their collective psyche.”

American musicians across genres have expressed deepening frustrations with the difficulty of travel in the current climate. In June of 2019, the Kronos Quartet, long a proponent of international and cross-genre collaborations, planned to perform with Malian singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté as part of its annual Kronos Festival in San Francisco. It wasn’t to be the group’s first collaborative performance with Diabaté; she had travelled to the U.S. in 2018 to perform with Kronos on a work visa, which had since expired.

Less than two weeks before the 2019 performance was scheduled, Diabaté was informed by officials at the American Embassy in Mali that her visa application would require an additional round of review. Shortly thereafter, Kronos received form DS-5535, “Supplemental Questions for Visa Applicants.”

Form DS-5535 requires an extensive array of information, including five years of the applicant’s social media handles and fifteen years of their travel history—a potentially dizzying list for musicians who frequently travel for performances. Moreover, there is no clear protocol for when consular officers should use the form, and no established timeframe once the form is submitted; approval can take several months.

O-1 Visa Application Process Extraordinary Ability

“The so-called ‘extreme vetting’ measures—including requiring visa applicants to provide extensive and intrusive social media access, and the increased use of the invasive DS-5535—all are having a chilling effect on the freedom of expression,” says Bill Bragin, executive director of the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi. He adds that “anecdotally, the increased use of the DS-5535 appears to be targeting artists from West Africa.”

Many U.S.-based arts presenters complain that the process of obtaining visas for the foreign artists they work with is becoming increasingly arduous, and in some cases untenable. They are now asked for more RFEs, requiring additional documentation for each artist’s visa application. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data, the number of RFEs requested rose to nearly 30 percent in early 2019, compared to less than 25 percent two years earlier.

“The U.S. artist visa process has long been incredibly unpredictable and opaque,” says Bragin. “But these measures make the process so unreliable that U.S. presenters, festivals, agents, and labels are increasingly hesitant to take a risk working with international artists.”

Largely due to complications related to RFEs, artists frequently do not receive their visas on time for scheduled tours. Not uncommonly, entire tours are canceled as a result. There is, moreover, little understanding of the often time-sensitive nature of arts presenting, says New York-based immigration lawyer Thomas Rome. “The Consulate has no concept that the show is going to start the following day and they have to be on that plane,” he says.

Rome adds that artists are often inadequately prepared for the interview process. And some of these interviews, he says, can entail impertinent questions and confrontational exchanges. As he recalls, band members of Pakistani vocalist and percussionist Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, the nephew and successor of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, were asked to sing during a visa interview at the U.S. consulate in Islamabad in order “to prove their bona fides.”

“Consular officers may be insensitive to cultural differences in the countries that they are working in,” Rome explains. Having a regular job, a bank account, a paycheck, and property may be common markers of legitimacy in Western nations, but are not necessary or even common in some countries. But lacking these criteria, “your story may not ring true to the consular officer,” Rome says. “You can’t paint everyone with the same brush.”

Much of the conversation around immigration has been about the building of a wall at the southern border; but there is already an invisible wall in place, Rome says. “When you can’t appeal your visa decision; when you have to walk out of that embassy with a piece of paper [denying your visa], that’s a wall.”

O-1 visas 2008-2018 standstill

Ethnomusicologist George Murer, a specialist in Kurdish folkloric music, has similarly wrestled with these roadblocks. When Murer proposed a group of Kurdish musicians for performances at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), they were accepted “with enthusiasm,” he explains. But the musicians ended up having their visas refused “twice at two scheduled interviews in Ankara in 2017.” And this was despite “a large volume of supporting documents (official invites from the festival and support letters from two congressional representatives) and thorough, by-the-books paperwork.”

Murer adds that, in 2017, there were several till-then unheard-of incidents—artists were denied their visas, were not allowed to board planes, or were denied entry to the U.S.—which, he says, seemed to “mark a turning point with a different type of scrutiny at points of arrival that sent a large number of artists back.”

The South African jazz pianist and healer Nduduzo Makhathini has been involved in cultural exchange with the U.S. for many years. He believes that U.S. citizens “should see themselves as contributors in a greater world of musical ideas,” and emphasizes the importance in particular of maintaining a connection between African-American musicians and their African ancestors.

Nduduzo Makhathini Adam McConnachie

Nduduzo Makhathini
Photo: Adam McConnachie

“In a postcolonial time,” Makhathini says, “a conversation between the motherland and the diaspora is essential.” When an African artist is not issued a visa to come to the U.S., he says, this means that “a part of the musical ecosystem is crippled by the U.S. not allowing free movement, not only of artists but of the ideas and freedoms articulated in their works.”

U.S. audiences should have an easier access to people like Kinan Azmeh, says New York-based multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum. He explains that Azmeh is part of a generation of artists around the world who are making something truly new. “U.S. audiences [should be part of] this broader universal consciousness which is not only groundbreaking, but also sociologically very positive,” Apfelbaum says. “It goes in the complete opposite direction of this nativism Trump represents.”

“For jazz musicians, the music of the African continent and the Middle East is fundamental,” New York-based jazz bassist Ben Allison wrote in an email. “It is at the core of what we do, and is deeply and inextricably embedded in the history of our art form.” Allison explains that policies that hinder cooperation between American musicians and musicians from the Middle East and Africa directly and negatively affect the musical scene in which he works.

Allison adds that the U.S. immigration policies “lead to missed opportunities to strengthen the good things that tie us to one another.” Music is a peace-building tool, he says. “And limiting the tools in our tool belt is the last thing we need now.”

Emilie Pons has written for JazzTimes, NPR, DownBeat, All About Jazz, and Hot House Jazz Magazine, and recently began producing music radio stories for CBC and Radio DW. She is currently working on a biography of Mexican singer Chavela Vargas.

Irem Karakaya is a freelance data journalist based in Turkey.

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