Let’s say that you are a fairly typical, large-ish American orchestra that engages eight international guest artists each season. They might be conductors on the rise or stellar soloists or exciting young musicians—all coming to your orchestra from outside the U.S. as part of the vibrant international classical-music scene. Right now, the cost for U.S. visas for these artists would be $3,680. But if proposed new fees for visas currently being considered go into effect, those same visas would cost $13,240—an increase of nearly $10,000 in visa expenses for your orchestra for one season. In January of this year, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed a massive increase to the visa filing fees and rule changes that could boost the price of visas for the orchestras, ensembles, and presenters that engage international artists beyond the reach of most.
“Fostering international cultural exchanges is part of the core missions of orchestras,” says Najean Lee, Director of Government Affairs and Education Advocacy at the League of American Orchestras. “A drastic fee increase like this one would absolutely stifle international cultural activity.”
Last November, the Berlin Philharmonic embarked from Germany to the U.S. for some cross-cultural concertizing, a mad dash of concerts in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Naples, Fla. that earned rave reviews. Earlier in 2022, when the orchestra began preparing for the trip, the visa process only took a single application that covered all musicians and staff. A standard filing cost $460. Next time might not be so simple. The increased visa filing fees and new rules would bring the price of the Berlin Philharmonic’s visas up to well over $4,000.
Unlike some government agencies, USCIS is not funded by taxpayer dollars and congressional appropriations. Rather, USCIS, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, depends on visa filing fees to the tune of about 96% of its operating budget. It’s been more than six years since the fees saw an increase, as a proposed increase in 2019 was prevented by U.S. courts from taking effect. USCIS is facing a staffing shortage and a backlog in applications, despite receiving dedicated federal funds intended to reduce visa backlogs.
The proposed fee adjustment, which generally raises costs on business-related applicants and holds steady or reduces costs for humanitarian visas, could boost the department’s revenue from $4.5 billion a year to around $6.4 billion a year. (Though they generally are nonprofit organizations, orchestras and other arts groups are considered businesses in this context.) This infusion of funds could significantly help with processing visas and asylum claims in a more timely and efficient manner.
The League of American Orchestras is working with numerous arts stakeholders to push back against the fee increases.
“But DHS officials are assuming arts groups have the ability to pay,” Lee says. “We recognize that they have tech and staffing backlogs, but we want to make clear that the arts sector cannot absorb those costs,” she continues, explaining that previous increases have typically been smaller and more manageable.
The current iteration of the proposed increase—which could be denied, as in 2019—would see fees jump more than 250% for artists, from $460 for individual O visa petitions to $1,655. For P visas, which cover groups of two or more artists or entertainers, the $460 fee would increase to $1,615, but the visa would now only cover groups of up to 25 people. Larger groups, including orchestras, would have to file multiple requests and pay the increased application fee each time. Both increases include a new $600 surcharge that would help fund an Asylum Program Fee. In addition to the fee increases, there is also concern among artists about increased processing time, as the time allotted for premium service filing—which already includes an additional fee—would increase from 15 calendar days to 15 business days.
Who pays the visa bill is dependent on the nature of the tour. Sometimes, orchestras will pay the filing costs for a guest soloist, sometimes an individual artist will do so if it’s for multiple engagements around the U.S., and sometimes it’s a presenter or concert hall that engages international artists. In any case, American organizations that bring in international artists will be hit with the big increase.
“Regardless of who’s paying, what we fear is that fees could impact the cost of performances and that could limit participation for artists,” Lee says. “We’re advising orchestras and other arts organizations to explain how their ability to pay is far more restricted by lean budgets than USCIS assumes.”
The League is working with numerous arts stakeholders, including the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), to push back against the fee increase. “Musicians, especially smaller and mid-size groups like orchestras, are only just now beginning to recover from the worldwide halt to live music,” says Ray Hair, the international president of the AFM, which represents musicians of all genres in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. “To turn around when we can finally work again and prevent us crossing international borders would be devastating.”
The government is seeking public comment through March 6; any individual or organization can submit a comment online through the Federal Register portal. In addition, the League provides direct help to member orchestras navigating the U.S. artist visa process and hosts a dedicated website, Artists from Abroad, in use by artists globally.
Ultimately, Lee hopes that enough responses will convince Department of Homeland Security officials to reduce the proposed increase for arts organizations. “This is a sweeping proposal with massive consequences,” she says. “Our aim is to make sure the voice of the arts sector is clearly heard.”
Hair is optimistic: “The AFM is heavily engaged in lobbying with the Homeland Security committee itself to understand what the consequences are of putting that fee up,” he says. “We will prevail.”