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Stricter visa rules could keep new acts out of U.S.

How will America’s crackdown on H-1s affect bands from foreign shores?

Sting, The Police, performs, stage, Shea Stadium

Sting of The Police performs on stage at Shea Stadium in New York City on August 18th 1983.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

New U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) visa requirements are already making it more difficult for foreign rock bands to gain entry into this country. While the new rules –— which require international artists to prove their “pre-eminence” in their field —– will have no effect on established acts, the consequences for important young bands could be severe.

“If these restrictions had existed when I first started bringing New Wave to America, I would never have been able to bring in bands such as the Police, Simple Minds, the Thompson Twins and so on all down the line,” says booking agent Ian Copeland of Frontier Booking International.

According to the new rules, an entertainer seeking an H-1 visa must demonstrate that, among other things, he or she “has performed and will perform as a star or featured entertainer,” “has achieved national or international acclaim,” “has appeared and will appear in concert halls, night clubs and other establishments which have a distinguished reputation” and “has extensive commercial successes, as evidenced by such indicia as box office grosses and record sales.” The new regulations were filed in the Federal Register last August and, according to INS press officer Duke Austin, are currently in effect, although the INS is now reviewing public response to them. The rules will be refiled, possibly with some modification, this spring.

“When I brought the Police in, they didn’t have a record deal,” says Copeland. “They didn’t have a chart position or any hope of having a chart position. They had very little press. Therefore they wouldn’t have been able to come, and thus we wouldn’t have been able to launch a whole new wave of talent. The current restrictions would have stifled the whole New Wave revolution.”

The new INS rules do not apply to music entertainers only. Other performers –— theater and dance groups, folk and ethnic artists –— fall into the same category and face similar difficulties. While critics of the new rules see them as unduly protectionist policies, various unions in the arts world would like to see the INS narrow the availability of H-1 visas even further. A recent letter from Alan Eisenberg, executive secretary of the Actors’ Equity Association, for example, stated that unless the current proposal was amended, the H-1 visas would not be limited to people with “extraordinary skills” and thus would “exacerbate the employment problems for our membership.”

The INS argues that the new rules provide for the first time standardized criteria for issuing H-1 visas. “There were a lot of abuses in this area,” claims INS spokesman Austin. “Entertainers came in and they not only came in as individuals but they brought a whole entourage H-1. They wanted their lighter, their sound man, their cosmetologist. And couldn’t perform without the whole entourage. Clearly that was an abuse of the system. Clearly it had to be standardized. Clearly it is not an attempt to deny the American public the right to see foreign talent that is preeminent. And yes, they have to become preeminent prior to coming here.”

Austin admits, however, that INS clerks are not always well qualified to determine if a foreign rock band deserves a visa. “It’s a tough call. It’s asking our adjudicators to have a tremendous amount of expertise, which they don’t have. It’s always going to have some subjectivity in it. There can be difficult calls in this area.”

For the past year and a half, booking agents and immigration lawyers have found it increasingly difficult to procure H-1 visas for their clients. In the latter half of 1985, three bands —– New Model Army, the Blow Monkeys and the U.K. Subs —– had their petitions for visas denied. Last summer, Copeland had problems getting visas for the crews of both the Smiths and UB40, acts that are quite well established commercially and critically in the U.S. And this past November, Easterhouse had its petitions returned and was granted visas only at the last moment.

Acquiring an H-1 visa has been further complicated by the consolidation of thirty-five INS district offices around the country into just four Regional Adjudication Centers, located in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Albans, Vermont, and Lincoln, Nebraska. In the past, booking agents and immigration attorneys could deal face to face with INS clerks or discuss a petition over the telephone. Now everything must be done through the mail. “The regional office is basically a post-office number,” says Ron Zeelens, who handled the international market for the ICM booking agency. “The human aspect of the service is no longer there. Previously you’d go down there, know the inspector, the inspector would know you. If you said a group demands H-1, he might take it at face value, knowing your previous work. Now you’re dealing with a faceless unknown.”

“My sense is that we’re kind of subject to the caprice of the individual INS examiner,” says Arne Brogger, an agent at Talent Resource who represents such acts as the Fall, Bad Manners and the Go-Betweens. “There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason as to why one group gets in and another doesn’t.”

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