[Blogger’s Note: This blog on dysfunctionality in the world of U.S. immigration law and policy welcomes principled and thoughtful commentary by guest writers. Today’s guest post is by Karin Wolman, a highly regarded New York immigration lawyer with an expertise in immigration issues affecting artists, entertainers and the venues where they perform.]

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has released an October 7, 2009 News Release that will shake up the world of arts and entertainment. The Release outlines new ground rules for O and P visa petitioners that will require every presenter on a single U.S. tour for a foreign performing artist to file separate visa petitions, with separate filing fees. (O-1 visas are for individual aliens of extraordinary ability, P-1 visas are for internationally-recognized entertainment groups, and P-3 visas are for artists coming to the U.S. to perform in a culturally unique art form.)

Traditionally, regional theaters and non-profit venues in the U.S. have pooled their limited resources, making it financially possible without breaking the season budget on one show to present important works by foreign artists to American audiences. The way this has worked until now is that one presenting theater or venue on the tour, sometimes a co-producer with the artist, would file a single visa petition for the foreign artist as the “employer” for the first stop on the tour, and as an “agent” for all the dates and venues with other U.S. employers. This one visa petition would cover every show on the U.S. tour, with evidence including the artist’s contracts with all the other U.S. presenters, and the other presenters would help defray other costs of the tour.

Except now, the USCIS is claiming the regulations never allowed that (but they have, and they do). The USCIS News Release claims that unless the initial presenting venue that would normally file one petition for a whole tour is “in business as an agent,” and has its own contracts with each of the other presenters as a “client,” every presenter must file its own petition.

That’s right, the immigration service has decided that now is the time to dig deeper into the pockets of arts organizations, already drained by the economic crisis, to demand duplicative filing fees, and illegally re-write the rules in an informal document that blatantly contradicts current regulations.

The unsigned agency Release, which does not have the force of regulation, vaporizes a part of the existing regulations without actually going through the publication, notice and comment procedures required to change the regulations. It ratchets up filing fees at a time when the arts community can least afford them, by requiring separate petitions in a common situation previously covered by a single petition.

The Release also adds a new evidentiary requirement, found nowhere in existing USCIS regulations:

Such a petition may be approved with respect to all employers only if Employer A can establish to the satisfaction of USCIS that it is “in business as an agent,” and that the other employers are its clients. This may be accomplished by agent-Employer A submitting all of the [customarily] required evidence . . ., as well as evidence of the agency relationship, such as a copy of its contract with the other employers.

Both this added evidentiary requirement, and the USCIS claim that any employer acting as an agent on behalf of other employers must also be “in business as an agent,” contradict the plain language and intent of the regulation at 8 CFR § 214.2(o)(2)(iv)(E), which states in part:

A United States agent may be: the actual employer of the beneficiary, the representative of both the employer and the beneficiary; or, a person or entity authorized by the employer to act for, or in place of, the employer as its agent.

Most tellingly, the regulation then divides into subsections – (E)(1) applies to ”An agent performing the function of an employer,” (E)(2) applies to, “A person or company in business as an agent, ” and (E)(3) applies to “A foreign employer, who through a U.S. agent, files a petition.” The plain language of the regulation belies the claim that an agent performing the function of an employer must also be “in business as an agent.”

To see the impact of the Release, let’s look at a not untypical fictional example:

Alba the Amazing is a Spanish aerialist/flamenco dancer/poet whose mixed-media performance art is the hottest show in Europe. Alba has earned rave reviews in 15 countries. An American theatre, the Cottage CoProducing Company, commissions a new original work and invites Alba to give the opening performances of their 2009-2010 season, for three shows in mid-November 2009. Alba books additional U.S. gigs following this premiere, for three shows each with Petite Presenter,The Tiny Theatre and the Avant-Garde Arena, running through January 2010. These three entities are small regional non-profit theatres, and are depending on Alba’s ticket sales to help maintain their subscriber base through this winter. All three were named as additional stops on Alba’s U.S. tour in the O-1 visa petition filed by the Cottage CoProducing Company, filed last week, with copies of Alba’s contracts with each presenter. The Cottage CoProducing Company is not in business as an agent, the other three presenters are not its clients, and they do not have separate contracts with Cottage CoProducing Company. The USCIS Release indicates that this petition will be approved only for the December shows at Cottage CoProducing Company, the subsequent dates will be refused, and the other three theatres will each be required to file a separate petition, incurring thousands of dollars in costs that exceed their budget.

The existing regulation explicitly permits the filing of “agent” petitions by one employer for other employers, so long as the contract between agent and foreign entertainer or artist is formalized. It does not state that one employer acting on behalf of itself and other employers must show that it is in business as an agent, nor does it require contracts between one employer and other employers. Through this informal, unsigned Release, USCIS is attempting to invalidate 8 CFR § 214.2(o)(2)(iv)(E)(1) and the second half of paragraph 8 CFR § 214.2(o)(2)(iv)(E), without amending the regulations or allowing any public comment.

Major producing and presenting venues, arts organizations, funding and grant-making organizations, the theatre-going public, and especially immigration practitioners who work with performers should all object formally, forcefully, and fast.

Unless this informal rule is rescinded, American theaters, concert halls and other presenting venues are going to find big holes in their budgets for upcoming seasons, and risk losing touch with the world of art and entertainment outside our borders.