Published on Sunday, December 15, 2002 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
New US Visa Rules Force Foreign Artists to Stay Away
They are meant to stop terrorism, but America's tighter border controls stand accused of simply being racist
by Ros Davidson in Los Angeles
Robin Huw Bowen, a leading Welsh harpist, almost became the latest in a growing list of musicians, writers and actors who are being kept out of the USA under new, tighter visa restrictions. The day before his flight to Chicago in late November, the renowned musician had to leave his home in Aberystwyth at 5.30am for an emergency appointment at the US Embassy in London.
His last-ditch plea for a visa worked, and he is now touring America, as he has done so often before. His tale is part of a disturbing trend caused by the US government's fight against terrorism, a squelching of non-American culture. Scores of international performers have had to cancel appearances since America tightened its visa rules and security checks this summer.
Performers and presenters in the US are losing money. The recording industry will be hampered, say critics of the policy. Labels prefer to issue CDs when a group is touring. And Americans are being deprived of cultural communication at a time when it is more crucial than ever before.
'This just increases the sense of isolation that's descending on the US and shows how much we're not in synch with the rest of the world,' says Richard Pena, director of the New York Film Festival.
In September, Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, former winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or, could not attend the premiere of his latest film, Ten, at the festival -- even though he had been to the US seven times previously. As a protest, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, one-time winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, refused to attend.
World-famous musicians The Afro-Cuban All Stars recently had to back out of a tour of sold-out concerts. Two of their members, Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez, have worked with the Buena Vista Social Club. Other Cubans denied visas include famed jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, rapper X Alfonso and members of Sintesis, some of a startling total of 22 Cubans who could not attend September's Latin Grammy Awards in Miami.
Havana-based film director Humberto Solas, one of whose films has been nominated at Cannes, could not attend a film festival tribute to his work in November. Polo Montanez, whose music is topping the charts in much of Latin America, had to cancel his US appearances. Just over a fortnight ago he died in a car crash.
'Americans will now never see him perform live,' says immigration lawyer Bill Martinez. He is working with the World Music Institute of New York which, along with several other cultural organizations, may soon sue the US State Department for denying 'freedom of expression', a constitutional right.
Iranian musician Hussein Alizadeh was only able to join a group of Iranian performers in the US in October after sympathetic members of the US Congress intervened. He missed the first nine gigs.
Nor does working with a household name protect a foreign artiste from ignominy. Canadian-Iranian instrumentalist Kayhan Kalhor, who performs with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, was so flustered by being fingerprinted, photographed and searched that he has vowed never to return.
A Canadian citizen, he has lived in New York. But his birthplace, Iran, marked him. He says the new restrictions amount to harassment and discrimination.
Syria and Iran are among the US's 'group of seven', along with Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Cuba and North Korea. Another film-maker who could not attend a festival was Bahman Ghobadi, the Kurdish-Iranian director of A Time For Drunken Horses, another winner at Cannes. His film Marooned In Iraq, which purportedly contains a few rants against Saddam Hussein, came first at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Infuriated, he turned down the prize.
President Bush signed the Enhanced Border Security and Reform Act in May, which targeted those born in seven countries that the US says sponsor terrorism, even if they were citizens of another country.
A second, more extensive, list of suspect countries has been issued, many of them Muslim, including Pakistan and Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Since August, anyone applying for a US visa faces more thorough background checks.
The classical Artemis Quartet, from Berlin, was forced to cancel a concert in San Francisco last month after immigration officials found that its cellist, Eckart Runge, had stolen a pair of tweezers as a young man in Colorado.
Three-time Booker Prize nominee Rohinton Mistry, the Canadian novelist born in India, made front-page news this autumn when he canceled a book tour because of humiliating treatment at three US airports. He said afterwards: 'I don't find this is the random check that they talk about, not when they happen to have it at every single stop, every single airport.'
Even his compatriot Margaret Atwood had difficulty. She had to return home to come up with more paperwork, missed her flight to the US and only just arrived in time for her book reading.
On October 30, Canada issued a rare travel warning to its citizens visiting America. As of Tuesday this week, crossing the Canadian-US border becomes even more tricky. All Commonwealth citizens, except those from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, must have visas.
Denis Coderre, Canada's minister of citizenship and immigration blasted the new policy as racial profiling that shows a lack of confidence in Canada's new immigration regulations. Less widely know is that all would-be foreign male visitors to the US aged between 16 and 45 -- but not women -- must now account for every country visited in the last decade, in case they are terrorists.
Even members of Burach, the Celtic rock group from Edinburgh, had to defend their visits to Russia, Turkey and India when they entered the US in September, according to their US agent Nancy Carlin. The ultimate impact, she says, is a chilling of cultural communication. She cites the example of a colleague, the director of a small festival in Michigan, who now says he will no longer consider non-American acts. It is just too risky financially, he told Carlin, especially for a small presenter.
©2002 smg sunday newspapers ltd