In the past, the O-1 visa was how many foreign musicians and other artists were able to tour and work in the United States. Now, for many reasons, they may have to consider other strategies.
The O-1 visa category is for “artists of extraordinary ability” and obtaining O-1B visa status for foreign musicians has always meant clearing a high bar. But, the previous administration erected other obstacles, such as “extreme vetting,” for some, depending upon their home country. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and concerts and tours were cancelled.
Foreign musicians in the United States in O status lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. Although some might have been able to collect unemployment benefits, many hesitated, fearing possible calamitous effects on future immigration applications. In the meantime, without work, they were technically “out of status.” One option was to change to B visitor status to remain in the United States and wait out the pandemic. Only musicians with sufficient funds could afford that route. Others left the country if they could and now need to return.
Now that concert venues are starting to reopen, cancellations continue because musicians from abroad still cannot obtain visas. The 14-day travel restrictions raised issues for musicians coming from the covered countries – symphony orchestras have had to substitute artists at the last minute and national tours have been cancelled. But, even with those restrictions set to lift in early November, it seems that visa delays will continue to affect touring artists.
Many U.S. Consulates abroad continue to be understaffed and are working through backlogs. At some, the first visa appointments are in the spring of 2022. In addition, it is expected that because the 14-day travel restrictions are being lifted, there will be a surge in applications and the lines will get even longer. Although the Biden Administration has made it easier for non-profit organizations to apply for expedited petition processing, that does not help with the visa application process. Musicians who are trying to tour to make up for lost revenue when concerts were cancelled are being stymied. Arts organizations are lobbying for relief.
Of course, the problems are not just in the United States. Musicians are also being hampered by travel and quarantine restrictions abroad.
O visas are not the only possibilities for musicians. Other options include P-1 visas for members of internationally recognized entertainment groups, P-2 visas for entertainers participating in certain reciprocal exchange programs, and Q-1 visas for those participating in cultural exchanges. While each of these visas carries different eligibility requirements, the visa backlog at U.S. Consulates affects them all.