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It's About Time, Part II: A Conversation with the DOS
September 27, 2012

Musical America’s Susan Elliott met with Elizabeth (Beth) Finan, public affairs officer for the United States Department of State and Brandon Gryde, director of government affairs for Dance/USA and OPERA America to discuss the  visa process that follows upon approval of the petition from the USCIS. [See Part I, a Conversation with the USCIS]

As part of his duties, Gryde helps dance and opera companies attempting to bring artists from overseas into the U.S. Since he is Dance/USA and OPERA America’s official liaison to the U.S. government in these matters, he knows the right questions to ask of the State Department, which oversees all 272 U.S. consulates worldwide.

Brandon Gryde: How much time should an artist allow in scheduling an interview at their local U.S. consulate—from making an appointment to receiving a passport back with the visa attached?

Beth Finan: The total time varies by embassy or consulate. We post all of our wait times individually by consulate on our web site; they’re current, up to the minute. It can vary from one day to 20 days, but applicants should call as early as possible, since some applications require additional processing time.

Gryde: What sort of additional processing?

Finan: Nothing major; we call it administrative processing.

Musical America: I don’t understand. If the USCIS does the processing for the petition, then what more “processing” is involved? I thought all the consulates did was interview the applicant.

Finan: We can’t really get into the details about that.

Musical America: How much time elapses between the end of the USCIS approval and the beginning of the State Department? And what is that mechanism? Does the approval go directly to the State Department and the petitioner, or does it go to a central holding place first?

Finan: As soon as the applicant receives notice from the USCIS that his/her petition has been approved, he/she is free to fill out the DS-160 online application and schedule the visa interview. Therefore, the time elapsed from USCIS approval to coming into the consulate depends on how quickly the applicant fills out the DS-160 and how soon the consulate can schedule an interview.

Gryde: We work a lot with groups that are applying for P [group] visas as well O [individual] visas. And, while the application is submitted at the same time for the whole group, can the whole group be interviewed as well?

Finan: Usually each individual should schedule a separate interview, since each application is reviewed separately. Different officers might ask different questions of the individual. Some consulates might be willing to see the whole group at once (see Nancy Malitz Case Study No. 1), but that’s a decision that can be only be made locally, depending on workload and staffing.

Gryde: Are there any benefits to interviewing the entire group at once?

Finan: All interviews and all visas are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis; the questions that we ask are based on U.S. law.

Musical America: Let’s say the Mariinsky Theater is coming to the U.S. to perform at the Kennedy Center, as it often has in the past. Does that mean that each individual member of the orchestra and opera company has to have an individual interview?

Finan: Yes.

Musical America: Wow.

Finan: But if someone lives in Moscow and someone else lives in St. Petersburg, each can each go to his/her nearest consulate. Additionally, you can go to any U.S. consulate worldwide. If you’re Russian but living in Vienna, you can apply at our embassy in Austria.

Musical America: What if you’re in Austria performing and you suddenly get a call that you are needed to fill in for someone in an opera in Berlin?

Finan: Same thing. You can apply at any consulate or embassy abroad. But something I should mention is that it may be more difficult to qualify for the visa if you are appearing at a consular office outside of your country of permanent residence.

Gryde: Why?

Finan: One of the requirements for nonimmigrant visa applicants is that they need to demonstrate strong ties to their homeland; part of the interview is the applicant providing the burden of proof that he or she is not an intending immigrant. We want to make sure that he/she is intending to come to the U.S. as a nonimmigrant, on the proper O or P visa, and that the applicant intends to return to his/her home country at the end of the visa validity.

Gryde: What if they’re constantly traveling? Doesn’t that work against them, since they’re not returning home between trips to the U.S.?

Finan: For someone who has come to the U.S. multiple times and always returned home in the end, that’s a bonus. They can say, “Look at all these places I’ve been and I still return to my home country.”

Musical America: What if they overstay their visa?

Finan: Then the next time they apply for another visa they will be ineligible; depending on how long they overstay, it can mean a three to ten-year ban to the U.S.

Gryde: How often does that happen?

Finan: We don’t have any numbers on how many people overstay, because if they do, they become the responsibility of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Musical America: How long are O and P visas generally?

Finan: We generally issue them for the validity that is on the petition, although in some cases individual reciprocity schedules (which reflect the visa validities other countries afford U.S. citizens traveling for the same purpose) will dictate shorter validities.

Gryde: I do the peer consultation letters [letters to the unions requesting approval for foreign artists to work in the U.S.] for Dance/USA. Those typically range from a couple of months to three years.

Musical America: If you leave the U.S. and come back, how does that work?

Finan: If we give you a multiply entry visa for, say, that three-year period, you can use that same visa as many times as you want.

Musical America: Are those harder to get than onetime visas?

Finan: Everything is on a case-by-case basis.

Gryde: Once the interview been scheduled what should the artist bring to ensure the most efficient processing?

Finan: A printed copy of his/her appointment letter, the confirmation page from the application he/she has filled out online; a recent photo, taken in the last six months; a current passport and any expired one; the receipt from USCIS showing the petition has been approved. We also have access to the approval electronically from the USCIS [Editor’s note: but it’s a good idea to bring yours as well.]. Minors under 18 might need to bring an original birth certificate.

Gryde: Each consulate has this information on its web site.

Finan: There are also email addresses on the site, in case an applicant has questions. We have over 200 embassies and consulates worldwide.

Gryde: Is any part of the interview application ever going to be online? Do you see doing Skype interviews in the future?

Finan: The application form is electronic, totally paperless. But right now the law requires individuals to appear in person.

Musical America: What if I only have a jpeg for a photo? Can I send that?

Finan: No.

Gryde: If the consulate officer challenges an approval by USCIS, then what?

Finan: Sometimes the consulate officer will find relevant information about the applicant that perhaps wasn’t available to the USCIS.

Musical America: Such as?

Finan: During the interview, the consulate office might discover that the job does not require the specialized “extraordinary ability” that the USCIS thought it did, or that the artist overstayed his last visa, or that there are health- or criminal-related issues, such as being involved in prostitution in the last ten years.

These things wouldn’t necessarily come out in the USCIS petition process. So the consulate would return the petition to the USCIS, indicating what the concerns are. USCIS would ask the petitioner to provide more documentation or evidence. But the large majority of petitions approved by the USCIS result in visas.

Musical America: How long is the typical interview?

Finan: Less than five minutes, unless there are questions that need to be pursued.

Gryde: What are the most common pitfalls in negotiating the visa process?

Finan: Artists and presenters sometimes wait too long to begin the application process. It’s a long process.

Gryde: Is there a way to expedite the consulate interview?

Finan: Only in rare circumstances can you get an emergency visa appointment.

Musical America: And how do you do that?

Finan: You would email the consular section at which you’re applying—the specific contact information for each post is shown on its individual web site.

Gryde: What are some of the suggestions you have for service organizations such as mine or Heather Noonan’s at the League in helping our members navigate the process?

Finan: Make them aware that the process isn’t going to happen overnight, that it’s a multi-step process. Apply early and make sure all documents are in order when you come to your interview. Also, it would be helpful for the sponsoring organization to provide USCIS with a duplicate copy of the I-129 petition so that they can forward that to us at State once it is approved—this facilitates the electronic upload into our system.

Musical America: What is the worst-case scenario? If it can take up to 90 days for a petition to be approved by the USCIS, how long can it take to get a visa from a U.S. consulate?

Finan: The worst case might be that you have to wait 40 days to schedule an interview and then it takes 60 to 90 days for administrative processing. Best case: You get your interview the next day, and the day after that you pick up your visa.

Gryde: What are the busiest countries?

Finan: For the last several years they have been Brazil and China, as well as Mexico. In some cases, wait times [for an interview] were 100 days. But we’ve added staff and in most cases it’s about a week. Mexico has been the busiest, however.

Gryde: We get a lot of folks in the dance community from the U.K.and Australia.

Finan: Right now, London is extremely busy. [Editor’s note: The interview took place during the Olympic Games.] So it takes 20 days to get an interview appointment plus four days for processing, excluding administrative processing. Sydney wait time is four days, and processing is one day. Melbourne is one day for an interview and two days for processing. Berlin is 23 days for an interview, three days for processing; Munich is 22 days plus processing.

Musical America: And we’re still talking about O and P visas—from neuroscientists to violists to orchestras and opera singers.

Gryde: And clowns and supermodels.

Finan: Yes.

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