US Immigration issues facing foreign touring artists, performers and musicians

Foreign musicians are experiencing greater challenges in navigating the U.S. visa process to hold concerts and tour the United States. This is in the face of increasingly more complex and changing immigration policy and procedures. It is now necessary that lawyers, managers, agents, promoters, and artists themselves prepare and organize prior to concert and tour dates in order to prevent visa denials, delays and/or problems at the border.

Touring and concerts are now being booked with less advance notice than they were previously and the contracting and scheduling timetable, combined with the longer wait times now required for visa approvals, puts excessive pressure on artists and their representatives to be able to make decisions and move quickly in response to concert date offers. It’s becoming more and more common for internationally recognized artists to have to cancel shows because visas could not be obtained quickly enough, due to poor planning. It should also be noted that the length of the O and P visas which are granted tend to be much shorter than prior with expiration dates requiring the artist to depart the US much closer to the last date of the tour or concert performance.

Most foreign artists who seek to perform in the US apply for O-1 or P-1 visas.  As of October 2009, the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) has instituted more restrictive readings of O and P visa approval regulations. As a result of the USCIS clarifying the requirements for agents filing as petitioners for O and P visa applications, potential artists’ sponsors are being scrutinized more carefully. The O and P applications need to provide detailed tour itineraries and extensive documentation in advance; the time required for processing these complicated applications has lengthened; and it is nearly impossible for an artist to achieve USCIS visa approval without hiring an experienced immigration attorney to assist in the application process.

Some artists may be tempted to avoid the visa application process entirely, and declare themselves as tourists when they are inspected by USCIS agents at their arrival airport. However, the USCIS border agents are trained observers, unlikely to be fooled by three or four similarly dressed “tourists” standing in line together, all toting luggage bearing a remarkable resemblance to musical instrument cases. Entertainment lawyers and managers should carefully counsel their clients about the risks involved in attempting such a gambit.

More than ever, touring artists will need the assistance of an organized and professional entertainment immigration attorney.  Artists looking to “crack the USA market” will need to be prepared to invest some money in professional fees, government application fees, and associated expenses incurred while meeting immigration requirements.

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