On Sept. 26, Lodi students were supposed to be treated to a morning outreach concert by M5 Mexican Brass, with the band performing for local music lovers that evening.
But after most of the quintet were denied visas, the band has had to cancel U.S. concert dates in September and October, leaving the Lodi Community Concert Association and seven other local organizers scrambling to find replacement acts.
“Lodi Community Concert Association regrets the situation in which M5 Mexican Brass has been placed,” LCCA president Judith Halstead said on Monday.
The band has been touring in the U.S. and internationally for more than a decade, she said, and the LCCA is disappointed with the decision.
The show will go on, with the Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass stepping into the spotlight to replace the quintet.
The denial came as a shock to the members of M5.
“It’s devastating, it’s absolutely devastating,” said trumpeter Alexander Freund, who cofounded the band in 2005 with Oscar Villegas Miranda.
They first applied to perform in the U.S. in 2007, and have toured in the country every year since, with their most recent performances in the spring of this year.
Freund was upset because he lives in Atlanta, but now can’t perform in the country where he lives with his band.
It’s M5’s U.S. tours that form the backbone of their performance schedule, but M5 also tours around the world, Freund said. The band has played for audiences on five continents.
Which makes the reason they were given for their denial all the more frustrating.
“We did not prove that we’re internationally recognized artists,” Freund said.
Along with their Lodi appearance, M5 had to cancel other California concerts and performances in Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas.
They were especially looking forward to a return to Lodi, where they performed several years ago, Freund said.
The denial was also a shock for Live on Stage, the company that works with groups like the Lodi Community Concert Association to schedule performances.
“I think we were all surprised to hear it,” said Lou Spoltore, vice president of Live on Stage.
Live on Stage relies on international acts to secure their own visas. Though it was the company’s first time working with M5, the band understood that, Spoltore said. It wasn’t their first time touring in the United States, he added.
“They have been performing here for a number of years, and for some reason, this year they were denied,” he said.
This is the first time that Live on Stage has had to replace an act due to visa denial.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service couldn’t comment on the band’s specific case, but did say that the P-1 visa is just one option for musicians seeking to perform in the U.S.
Entertainers and visa attorneys have complained that changes to the visa application process under the current presidential administration create difficulties for foreign entertainers hoping to visit the U.S.
“This is one more element of BAHA: ‘Buy American, Hire American,’” New York-based immigration attorney Karin Wolman told the news outlet The Observer in September 2018.
M5 is joins a long list of performers who have been denied entry to the U.S. over the past few years.
Two ballet dancers with the Paris Opera were denied visas for a March 2018 performance, according to Dance Magazine. A month later, so were Bolshoi Ballet stars Olga Smirnova and Jacopo Tissi.
The South Korea-based Beresheit Dance Company had planned a North American tour starting in February 2017, but was also denied entry to the U.S., the industry magazine wrote.
The band Lord Of The Lost worked with the U.S. State Department for more than eight months before being denied visas for their planned tour, the entertainment website AltPress reported in October 2017. The German group Boreas Quartett Bremen was denied entry in May 2017, when they were slated to perform at the Boston Early Music Festival, according to the radio station WBUR.
And in March 2017, the pop culture outlet Vulture listed six bands that had been scheduled to perform at South by Southwest before being denied visas.
Visa problems for international entertainers stretch back as far as 2012, when WorkPermit.com — a website dedicated to helping people find overseas employment both within the U.S. and in other countries — reported that P-1B visas were becoming harder to obtain.
However, in September 2018, USCIS staffers were given more discretion to deny visas they deemed “frivolous or meritless” under a new policy directive, The Observer reported.
The new rash of denials is costing money. More promoters, festival organizers and music groups are turning to visa consultants and immigration lawyers for help. Those who are still denied are faced with canceling concerts and tours.
“It’s an amazing loss for us,” Freund said. “It’s an amazing loss for all the presenters and the audiences.”
M5 Mexican Brass plans to continue applying for visas in the future. Freund hopes that in the meantime, the federal government reconsiders their approval process for performers.
“The arts should never be excluded anywhere in the world,” he said.