The demise of an ethnic cultural festival in the nether regions of New England, i.e. the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, generally would be of little urgency for the cosmopolitan types who inhabit this island. And yet it should be. Why? Because the festival has become an unexpected and inexplicable casualty of the war on terror, and it surely won’t be the last.
Tom Ridge’s Department of Homeland Security is looking for terrorists-thankfully-but apparently feels that it should not distinguish between a fiddler from the Shetland Islands with a gig in Boston and a cab driver from Riyadh who’s looking for a student visa. The fiddler must journey to the nearest U.S. embassy for a personal interview, just as the cab driver from Riyadh is subjected to skeptical questions and intensive background checks. This policy is a burden on the fiddler and the cab driver alike-however, in an unfair world, the cab driver’s ordeal is regrettable (assuming he or she bears us no ill will) but understandable. The fiddler, on the other hand, may decide that the hassle just isn’t worth it.
And as the Irish Echo reported last week, that is precisely what has destroyed the annual Gaelic Roots Festival at Boston College, and what is hurting other cultural exhibitions in this city and elsewhere. Isabel Soffer, the associate director of the New York City World Music Institute, said her organization has canceled nine performances in less than a year because of visa problems.
“It’s not so much visa denials as it is a policy of discouragement,” she said. “Right now, all non-immigrant visas are being handled in the same way.” Applications can be made no sooner than six months before a trip, and these days, it takes about four months to process the paperwork, she said. “That means people who want to bring international artists to this country and who book shows two years in advance are going to decide not to book these artists.”
Or they will cancel some offerings outright. Every summer since 1993, musicians, singers, dancers and other artists from a handful of countries have converged on the B.C. campus for a weeklong celebration of Gaelic culture. For many performers, the event has been one of the highlights of their summer schedule.
Given the festival’s theme, it comes as no surprise that many of the performers hail from Ireland, Canada and the United Kingdom. It would seem fair to say that these nations and their citizens are on fairly good terms with the United States, despite their occasional disagreements. And while Canada, the U.K. and Ireland all are a good deal more multicultural than they were two generations ago, the devotees of Gaelic music and dance tend to be more traditional in their ethnic and cultural makeup.
And yet, thanks to America’s new homeland-security policies, the Gaelic performers are finding it so difficult and so expensive to get work permits that they will do so no longer. The festival will fold after this year’s performances. According to the festival’s director, Seamus Connolly, one performer spent more than $130 navigating the automated switchboard at a U.S. consulate, trying to arrange for a personal interview. “Boston College naturally reimbursed the performer, but we can’t do that for 40 or 50 performers in the future,” Mr. Connolly said.
“It’s always been hard to get non-immigrant visas,” Ms. Soffer said. “It’s just that now everybody gets thrown into one big pot, and it’s handled by whomever is processing them.” That, too, has become an issue-in the past, people like Ms. Soffer could make a call to help expedite the process or at least find out the status of a particular visa application. Now, she says, nobody really knows how it works, including usually reliable members of Congress.
“There’s a learning curve for many institutions and artists,” Ms. Soffer said. “People are just beginning to figure out that things have changed drastically. You can still get visas, it’s just that it has become more difficult, and you have to plan way ahead.”
Interestingly enough, some groups apparently have better luck-or are better organized-than others. While the Gaelic groups apparently have given up trying to run the gauntlet to get to Boston College, the World Music Institute has booked a group of artists from Iran. They received their visas, but because the United States and Iran have no formal relations, the artists had to apply for visas through a third country. Though they succeeded, not every artist has the funds or the patience for such an ordeal.
“Still, the answer is not to give up and say we can’t do it anymore,” Ms. Soffer said. “The answer is to figure out how to do it.”
The problem, though, is that the easy answers no longer exist.