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Island musicians concerned by soaring costs to tour south of the border

Gordon Belsher says proposed changes to the cost of a U.S. work visa mean he'll 'have to look really hard about whether we go out to the States.'  (Lorne Miller - image credit)
Gordon Belsher says proposed changes to the cost of a U.S. work visa mean he'll 'have to look really hard about whether we go out to the States.' (Lorne Miller - image credit)

The U.S. government wants to more than triple the cost of a temporary work visa, prompting concern from some Island musicians.

The cost of a temporary work visa is currently $460, but the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced plans to increase that fee to $1,615.

For Island musicians like Gordon Belsher, that's a concern.

"We play in halls with 100 or 200 people and fill in the gaps with pubs and house concerts," he told Island Morning's Laura Chapin.

"So for the fee to go up — triple it — we're going to have to look really hard about whether we go out to the States."

Belsher is booked to perform 12 concerts with P.E.I. fiddler Cynthia MacLeod in New England in May. He said he doesn't think the increase will be finalized by then, but hearing about the costs has him worried about future tours.

"That's $1,600 US, so that's going to be over $2,000 for that permit and that's before any of your other travelling expenses," he said.

For the fee to go up — triple it — we're going to have to look really hard about whether we go out to the States. — Gordon Belsher

The cost of a temporary work visa for international entertainers in the U.S. has remained steady at $460 since 2016.

American musicians wanting to perform in Canada also need to obtain a temporary work visa. That fee starts at $155 for an individual, and $465 for a group of three or more artists and their staff travelling together.

The Canadian Federation of Musicians is part of a larger group actively lobbying U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the changes.

In an email, the federation said U.S. Immigration cited the expansion of humanitarian programs, federally-mandated pay raises, additional staffing and other essential investments as reasons for the proposed fee increase.

Fees 'a major barrier'

Frédéric Julien, director of research and development at the Canadian Association for the Performing Arts, said the proposed increase will make it even more difficult for artists to make a living.

"We're appalled and we're concerned for members," he said.

"Artists struggle to make a living even in Canada and this creates a major barrier for those who attempt to tour in the U.S."

Julien said the association is watching the issue closely, and working with partners in the U.S. to lobby against the change.

"There was a previous proposal, I think it was in 2019, for increases that, because of successful pressure from the sector, did not move forward," he said.

"So there are possibilities, certain odds, that USCIS may step back on this proposal. But what are these odds exactly? I honestly don't know, we'll have to find out in the spring."

The U.S. government is accepting comments on the proposed changes until March 6.

Other destinations an option

Rob Oakie, executive director of Music P.E.I. told CBC News in a statement, "anything that adds to the cost of touring (which seems to be everything these days) is a concern for touring artists."

Oakie said he believes the only way the proposal will be withdrawn is if members of the U.S. music industry — including venues, festival organizers, agents and artists — raise enough opposition.

He said he doesn't believe U.S. officials will listen to Canadian or other international artists.

In the meantime, Oakie said Music P.E.I. has been advising artists who want to tour internationally to go to the United Kingdom or the European Union.

"Sad, since we share so much with the U.S. and it's so close," he said.