Visa issues a growing challenge for FolkmootWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
For those who think getting a travel visa is a headache, try steering hundreds of Folkmoot dancers from a dozen different countries through the highly bureaucratic process.
That’s what Folkmoot USA’s group relations committee is responsible for doing months before the performers step foot in the U.S.
“It’s nerve-wracking during the months of March and April because that’s when you have to begin to get things really settled down,” said committee member Dave Stallings.
By then, visas must be in hand and funding for tickets in place. While groups are ultimately responsible for getting their own visas, committee members still have a lot of work on their hands.
“It’s just hard to convince groups, ‘Yeah you’re not coming until July, but you got to start working on it in January,’” said Stallings.
A group from India had to drop out of Folkmoot this year because it did not start the visa process on time, despite constant prodding from Folkmoot coordinators.
Performers from Turkey also had to drop out because they couldn’t raise enough money for the costly trip across the ocean.
“If you’re talking about buying international airfare for 30 people, that’s a lot of money,” said Stallings.
Though Folkmoot provides housing, meals and transportation from the airport, financing every dancer’s journey to the States hasn’t been feasible.
“They pay their own way,” said Rolf Kaufman, chair of the group relations committee. “We have a hard enough time raising the money to feed them and transport them.”
Visa issues and financial constraints usually make it difficult for Folkmoot to recruit dance groups outside of Western Europe. International airfare for 35 people plus baggage and visa fees can add up to $40,000 at times.
Due to unexpected cancellations at the last minute, Folkmoot had no choice but to recruit more Western European groups than usual this year.
Kaufman — who has been involved with Folkmoot since its inception — said he would like to see a fund set up to partially pay for plane tickets, but no one has stepped up to sponsor that idea yet.
Many groups are able to fundraise successfully and coax their governments into donating to the cause. The Turkish dancers weren’t able to get the appropriation they expected this year, which is what led them to cancel the trip.
Another challenge is just finding seats on the same flight for a few dozen performers with luggage and musical instruments — especially when faced with small, commuter flights within the U.S.
“You may have more than a ‘planeful,’” said Stallings.
A new era
The visa process has grown more and more difficult each year, especially amid increasing alarm about illegal immigration.
Embassy officials will try to determine the likelihood that each applicant will become an illegal immigrant after arriving on U.S. soil.
Those who are enrolled in universities, employed or have extended family back at home are more likely to obtain a visa than those who have no tangible reason to return.
Performers from Africa are most likely to have trouble receiving a visa, according to Kaufman.
According to Stallings, the most at-risk performers come from countries with large expatriate populations in the U.S.
“It’s hard for somebody to just come over here and disappear without some kind of support,” said Stallings.
About two decades ago when Folkmoot was just finding its footing, the lead dancer from China attempted to run away with her boyfriend. He just pulled up one day in a rental car and tried to sweet-talk Folkmoot officials into allowing her to go out with him.
But even back then, Folkmoot had a strict policy of not allowing dancers to venture out alone. The Chinese dancer was forced to stick with her group for the remainder of Folkmoot.
Shortly after that, she was scheduled to go to another festival in Utah, which is where she made her escape. Kaufman later heard that she married her boyfriend, who had traveled here from Texas. “She had a family and lived happily ever after,” Kaufman said.
On another occasion, the Folkmoot director heard rumors that a few dancers from Haiti were planning on running off to Miami. The director alerted immigration officials there, who would only say that incidents like that happen every day and there was little they could do about it.
Once, a girl from Trinidad took off after arriving in North Carolina. She had been visiting relatives and ended up rejoining her group members before they flew out.
“She didn’t violate her visa, she just violated [Folkmoot],” said Kaufman.
Despite a few examples of misbehavior here and there, Folkmoot has done an excellent job of keeping tabs on its performers thus far. Performers are in group housing rather than private residences, which are easier to escape.
“We’ve had extremely good luck with avoiding these sorts of things,” said Kaufman.
Heading off problems
To avoid complications as much as possible, Folkmoot avoids recruiting dancers from countries that have volatile relationships with the U.S.
“We don’t try to get, for instance, Iran,” said Kaufman. “We get petitions from Iran, but we don’t try.”
Most dancers pay $130 each to travel with tourist or business visas. In rare cases, though, they must obtain a performers visa. The lengthy process for an entertainer visa requires a petition and a $1,000 fee for the whole group, a cost that Folkmoot covers. Priority processing demands another $1,000 fee on top of that.
Even after all that is invested, the performers visa can be rejected for the group.
In dire circumstances, Folkmoot has turned to U.S. senators for assistance in obtaining visas for performers.
One group from Kenya had especially great difficulty getting to Western North Carolina, Kaufman recalled. By the time the Kenyans received their performers visa, it was too late to round up money for plane tickets.
Last year, the Kenyan group went through the performers visa process once more, got their visa then all of a sudden, the U.S. consulate demanded a special fee of several hundred dollars.
The fee was retribution for a similar charge Kenya levies on U.S. citizens. Kaufman dreaded the worst, but the group was able to raise the funds for the fee.
At the very last minute, the group’s funding source for travel expenses backed out. The group had to cancel.
A few times in recent years, Folkmoot has to resort to finding a ethnic dancers from the U.S. due to incidents like these.
This year, it’s Peruvian dancers from New Jersey. The upside is: they’re coming by Greyhound and don’t need a visa.