IMPORTANT BREAKING NEWS: Two days after I completed my interview with Bill Martinez (below), the Tamizdat organization issued the following statement:
The United States Customs & Immigration Service (USCIS) announced policy changes that, effective June 15, 2021, will:
* Enact new traditional expedite criteria that restores the ability for a nonprofit organization whose request is “in furtherance of the cultural and social interests of the United States” to request discretionary expedited service, even when premium processing is available, and
* Ensure that petitioners submitting a visa application are given an opportunity to correct innocent mistakes and unintentional omissions before an application is denied. New guidance issued to USCIS petition reviewers emphasizes that visa officers should only issue requests for additional evidence and denials when absolutely necessary.
Bill Martinez is the Festival’s attorney of record for processing artist work visas. In addition to his visa practice, Bill also has a strong track record as a community-based lawyer and arts producer/activist.
Bill was lead counsel in the landmark Encuentro del Canto Popular vs Office of Federal Management Control case which challenged the Reagan administration’s visa denials for Cuban artists.
His work on this case led him to become one of the nation’s leading experts in U.S.-Cuba cultural exchanges and artists’ visas.
The Interview (June 9, 2021)
As COVID restrictions are beginning to be relaxed in California, I spoke to Bill Martinez about the prospects for the resumption of travel by international artists to the United States. Our conversation ranged from the impact of the Trump administration and COVID-19 on the process, to the plans for what the performing arts industry should do in the future to make this process more streamlined and less onerous for smaller, culturally diverse petitioners.
During its time in office, the Trump administration made the process for obtaining non-immigrant work visas more difficult than it has ever been in the post National Origins Formula era. By changing the mission of the USCIS and mandating several spoiling and delaying tactics, Trump restructured the system to make it much more difficult to enter into the country.
On top of that, COVID19 resulted in an almost complete shutdown of the system. The pandemic shut many U.S. consulates around the world resulting in artists not being able to complete the application process by attending consular interviews and getting the appropriate stamp for their passport.
Rather than reflect on the actions of the Trump administration, Martinez focused on the unavoidable impact of COVID-19. For more than a year there has been little or no travel by artists. Now, even as COVID restrictions are being eased in the United States (this is not necessarily able to happen in other countries) and, “Up to three quarters of U.S. Consulates are, or have been, at least partially closed” he said.
Further he said that, “The new head of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas is daunted and hurt by an incredible backlog of visa applications.” Not just for non-immigrant permits, such as those for touring artists, but for all classes of visa.
Martinez contemplates the various ways the Biden administration can reverse some of the Trump changes in the coming years. In the short term, Martinez and other legal organizations such as Tamizdat have been pushing for interview waivers so that those artists who were previously approved to enter the United States can bypass the interview phase. Incorporating these waivers into the process will streamline approvals for the petitioners and ease the now extreme burden on the USCIS’s own system.
In addition, both Martinez and Tamizdat have been urging for more flexibility within the system. For example, by allowing petitioners to go to neighboring countries to find a U.S. consulate that is open for interviews and extending the validity dates of pre-COVID visas.
The main improvement Martinez hopes to see from the Biden administration within the upcoming years is to streamline the process by preventing more officers from abusing Requests for Evidence (RFE’s). During the Trump administration, adjudicators were mandated to overuse “arbitrary and capricious analysis” asking for spurious information that was not required for processing applications. The objective was to slow the application down to where the petition would not be issued by the dates that it was needed and / or to force the petitioner to pay an additional $2,500 per application for premium processing.
Martinez anticipates that the Biden administration will regulate the use of RFEs so that they are issued in a more sensible fashion, when the application actually warrants it. In addition to the regulation of RFEs, Martinez seeks a revision in the mission statement of USCIS back to something less hostile.
Martinez stated, “We are optimistic that with the new administration, visas for international artists will be more reliable and not hampered by unnecessary additional documentation and costs.”
With the new update from Tamizdat, Bill also said that, “The decision to authorize expedited processing is still at the discretion of the reviewing adjudicator, but it is welcome news for our petitioners; a good sign that the messages of industry advocates are being heard.”
For those applying for artist visas now, Martinez emphasizes the importance of being prepared with all the documents needed and sending in the application early so that there is time for any problems that can arise in the process. As for the American public as society starts to reopen, “You can do your part by supporting artists by watching their live streams or attending their events.”
Martinez ends the interview with a beautiful saying: La cultura cura, meaning culture cures. We need culture to help us get through these difficult situations.
This content originally posted at San Francisco International Arts Festival