Lawmakers Hear From Cellist
Yo-Yo Ma Says Visa Precautions Stifle Cultural Exchanges

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Federal officials, worried about letting terrorists into the country, are doing a pretty good job of keeping musicians and other artists out, virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma told a House panel yesterday.

The performer, whose Silk Road Project organizes international tours of musicians from all over the world, urged the House Government Reform Committee to simplify a visa process that he says has stifled cultural exchanges by creating "extraordinarily high" barriers to bringing artists to the United States.

"While very few Americans have the opportunity to travel to rural India, and even fewer to rural Kyrgyzstan, the arts allow everyone to catch a glimpse into these other worlds through their music, their dance and their art," Ma testified at a hearing on the impact of visa-processing delays on arts, education and business.

"Encouraging artists and institutions to foster these artistic exchanges -- bringing foreign musicians to this country and sending our performers to visit them -- is crucial," he said. "But the high financial cost and the lengthy timeline make these programs difficult to execute and to maintain."

Ma, 50, who was scheduled to perform later at the Kennedy Center, was the star attraction at the Capitol Hill hearing. But other witnesses from the business and arts worlds sounded the same note: Increased visa security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have snared not just potential terrorists but also tourists, foreign students, specialized labor and artists in a complex bureaucratic web.

The measures require the State Department to interview every visa applicant and collect biometric information such as fingerprints. Officials also must cross-check the names of applicants against government databases of suspected criminals.

As a result, visa applicants in many parts of the world have had to endure months-long delays in obtaining interviews. A recent Government Accountability Office review of the State Department's 211 visa-issuing posts found maximum wait times for interviews of 168 days in Madras, India; 142 days in Rio de Janeiro; 116 days in Paris; and 134 days in Mexico City.

Kevin Schofield, an executive with Microsoft Research, said such hurdles interfere with business. "As we work to develop world-class software, we often need to involve experts from other countries in meetings here," he testified. "Yet we have suffered severe disruptions in recent years from inordinate and unpredictable delays and denials of business visitor visas."

Ma gave an example of two Iranian musicians who, despite having performed in the United States eight times, had to fly to a consular office in Dubai twice over three months before obtaining visas for a U.S. tour with the Silk Road Project. The process cost $5,000, he said.

"Dignity is a huge issue that we're all talking about," Ma said. He added that "the lines that people go through and the security checks for the frequent visitors are such that many of our friends, they still come, but I think there certainly are many people who decide they don't want to."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the committee chairman, said he wants to find ways to streamline the visa process, such as hiring more consular workers and reconsidering whether applicants whose biometric information is already in a database need to be interviewed every time.

"You'll probably always have some unpredictability to this process," Davis said. "But 160 days' wait? Inexcusable. Ninety days is inexcusable, particularly in a global economy where things are moving at warp speed and the competition doesn't put up the same restraints."

Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, said the State Department is devoting more resources to meet growing demand, especially in China and India. He said travel and tourism contributed $104.8 billion to the U.S. economy last year.

"The Department of State is committed to ensuring that the visa application process, or perceptions about it, does not serve as an impediment to legitimate travel to the United States," Edson said in written testimony yesterday.

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