Ballroom dance studios: tough visa rules hurt U.S. businesses

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Dance studio owners say that without a guarantee that experienced instructors from overseas will get visas, it weighs on their bottom line.

ORANGE, Conn – When no American responded to his multiple announcements of help for a dance teacher, Connecticut studio owner Chris Sabourin looked overseas for a qualified candidate. But she was once again stymied by a federal tightening of visa application rules that she and others say is hampering the ballroom dance industry.

Sabourin eventually had to give up on a potential employee after spending the last year and thousands of dollars trying to hire a top ballroom dancer from Greece to teach at his Fred Astaire studio in Orange, only for the woman to be detained at JFK International Airport and sent back home.

“It would be nice to know why we are going through such a difficult time,” said Sabourin. “It definitely affects our business. “

With an ongoing interest in learning iconic dances like the foxtrot and tango, fueled in part by popular TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” owners of studios like Sabourin say their efforts to hire enough Professional instructors are hampered without foreign help. Owners, national representatives of dance studio chains Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire, and lawyers describe larger backlogs on visa applications and an overall increase in requests for evidence, including redundant information and unnecessary documents. Immigration attorneys argue that President Donald Trump’s administration has erected an “invisible wall” of many obstacles that have made it difficult for all kinds of American industries, from ballroom dancing to STEM fields, to hire foreign workers for jobs they have struggled to fill with qualified American applicants.

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A review of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data released in January by the American Immigration Lawyers Association found that average case processing time increased 46% between fiscal 2016, the last full year of the previous administration and fiscal year 2018 – from 6.5 months to 9.48 months. In testimony to Congress provided in July, association president Marketa Lindt said USCIS’s overall backlog of delayed cases exceeded 5.69 million in the past fiscal year, a 69% increase from fiscal 2014. Meanwhile, federal records reviewed by The Associated Press show that there has been a slight increase since 2017 in initial application denials for 01 visa applications from people with “extraordinary abilities or achievements” – the visa that many foreign dancers seek – as well as for 01 visa applicants who have had a second chance to meet the eligibility criteria.

Representatives of the dance industry say they have seen the processing times for these nonimmigrant visas, which allow dancers to work in the United States for up to three years, from several weeks to several months, with l ‘uncertainty that the application will ultimately be approved. In one case, a professional dancer was granted his visa to work in a dance studio in Southbury, Connecticut, was subsequently refused at the US consulate in his home country of Ecuador, one of the final stages of the process. process.

“I think these professionals in particular, these artists, are falling into this area where USCIS and immigration services are making it increasingly difficult to come here legally,” said Hartford, Connecticut, immigration attorney Erin O. ‘Neil-Baker, who currently represents about 10 New England dance studios sponsors professional ballroom dancers from abroad. “Even if you are an expert in your field, even if you have extraordinary abilities, to stay here, they make it difficult.”

Immigration lawyers cite the executive order “Buy American and Hire American” signed by Trump in April 2017 as one of the reasons for the processing delays. The order aimed to create higher wages and employment rates for American workers by “rigorously enforcing and administering” the country’s existing immigration laws.

“Overall, for all types of applications to USCIS, we observed a significant increase in the increase in case processing time,” said Diane Rish, associate director of government relations for American Immigration. Lawyers Association, which warned in its report that processing times have reached “crisis levels under the Trump administration” for families, individuals and businesses.

The Government Accountability Office told members of Congress in late May that it planned to investigate the report’s findings.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC, a think tank that supports tighter immigration controls, said he sympathizes with small business owners and their challenges, but maintains that they should not blame federal immigration policy for their labor recruitment problems.

“It’s one thing if you’re talking about world-class nuclear physicists, where there are a handful of people on the planet who have capacity and we want them here. Everyone understands that, ”he said. “Dance teachers? I am sorry. It’s something the market has to deal with. If they can’t find people in college dance programs to incent them to become teachers, well, maybe we need fewer dance schools. It is a problem of supply and demand. “

Krikorian noted that the Trump administration is not inventing new rules, but enforcing existing law as intended, “instead of winking and nodding and looking the other way, which several administrations have been doing it for decades “.

A spokeswoman for the US State Department said there was “no change in policy” regarding 01 visas in particular.

But some fear the tighter rules have long-term ramifications. Michael Wildes, immigration attorney for First Lady Melania Trump and her family, noted in an editorial published several months ago in The Hill that immigration attorneys for fashion designers , models and photographers also have immigration services. ”He warned that there could be a“ widespread deprivation of the right to vote ”among talented and creative people, who decide to give up the United States and to opt for Paris or Beijing.

Dance studio owners said long delays and red tape can be daunting for their future instructors, causing them to abandon their plans to work in the United States.

“They can’t wait that long,” said John Gates, vice president of Fred Astaire Dance Studios.

Many of the dancers come from Europe, where it’s more common to learn ballroom dancing at a very young age – with hundreds of kids in group classes – and compete at much higher levels than in the States. -United. I left European competitions in my early twenties to come to the United States to have the opportunity to continue competing, as well as teaching, and having a very successful career in a country where there are fewer dancers than. trade fair.

Jose Zuquilanda, a 23-year-old ballroom dancer from Ecuador who has competed all over the world, including the United States, had hoped to spend the next few years competing, training, teaching dance, and learning to manage a business in a Fred Astaire. studio in Southbury, Connecticut. Zuquilanda, who has visited the United States dozens of times on tourist visas, successfully obtained a 01 visa for professionals so that he could work here legally. But he was recently denied the 01 and his tourist visa at the US consulate in Ecuador. His mother, Liliana Serrano, who lives in Connecticut, does not understand why her son’s application was ultimately denied.

“They’re not just hurting his career, they’re hurting studio Fred Astaire,” she said.

Sabourin estimates her studio could generate an additional $ 100,000 per year if she could find two more instructors, especially a dancer to work with male clients she has had to turn down, some of whom wish to train for amateur competitions.

“The government believes there are enough Americans to hire,” she said. “Of course, the people who make these decisions don’t know the difference between tap dance, jazz, ballet and the ballroom, but whatever. “

Wayne Smith, Executive Vice President of Arthur Murray Dance Centers, has worked in the ballroom dance industry for almost 50 years. He said immigration problems have also worsened over the past two years for the owners of his company’s dance studios.

“It’s all the time, right now now. It’s just become a very difficult problem, ”said Smith, who said it can be financially difficult for these business owners to afford to hire lawyers who understand immigration law. “For them to invest that kind of money in there, it’s not really worth it in the long run.”


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