AFM to INS: Make sure guests face music

Union claims visa'd visitors abuse privileges

The American Federation of Musicians on Thursday added an unlikely voice to growing calls for reforms in the way the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service enforces restrictions on the travel visas it issues.

Move pits the artists’ union against visiting orchestras the union claims are abusing their touring visas by contracting for lucrative film scores and other work while inside the U.S. — work that could be done by American artists, the AFM argues.

The union’s demand for reform followed an incident last February involving the renowned Kirov Opera and Ballet Orchestra, whose members were granted “P-1” visas, allowing them to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

According to the AFM, the Kirov then “chose to exploit that goodwill” by recording the score to the upcoming Harrison Ford actioner “K-19: The Widowmaker” in violation of the terms of its members’ travel visas. The union said it was told the INS would investigate, but no findings were ever made public, and the Kirov has since been allowed to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“We have no problem with cultural exchange — our orchestras and opera companies want to visit other parts of the world too,” said AFM prexy Thomas Lee. “But when visiting artists do work that’s outside of their visa — and it’s work that we normally do — then we’re going to complain.”

This isn’t the first incident that’s come to the attention of the AFM. Lee said the org filed a complaint three years ago wherein it claimed the Russian National Orchestra had scored a film called “Other Voices” while in residence at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl.

The orchestra claimed only certain musicians from its group were contracted to record the score, and that the organization as a whole had made no such deal. But Lee noted that arrangements with foreign ensembles can be lucrative, as they often work for far less money than a domestic orchestra.

The INS has become the object of scrutiny on Capitol Hill in recent months, as lawmakers probe possible breakdowns in preventing terror suspects from entering the country. Most recently, reports have surfaced that the agency granted visas to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The INS wasn’t immediately available for comment.

If the AFM doesn’t get satisfaction from its inquiries with the INS, Lee said the union will pursue other options, including potential legal action against U.S. entertainment companies that employ foreign orchestras in violation of visa rules.

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