Volovan, an up-and-coming four-piece band from rocanrol hotbed Monterrey, Mexico, that blends Beach Boy harmonies, melodic pop and punk, finds itself in controversy here in the States as it attempts to reach a growing audience. At issue is the Immigration and Naturalization Service's refined application for U.S. work visas, altered after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., and a new, connected $1,000 processing fee. The band, which is still waiting for that visa, was forced recently to cancel important dates in California, including two dates with the Rock en Ñ tour in the Los Angeles area October 18 and 20 and an opening gig for Latin supergroup Maná on October 12. The cancellations cost the band approximately $6,000, not to mention the related publicity and promotional costs.
"It was a nightmare and, needless to say, the name of the band in the U.S. . . . is pretty much beat up," says Volovan's manager Benjamín Rodríguez.
Phoenix, no stranger to rock en español itself, has also been hit by this change: "Due to increased restrictions on travel to the U.S. from abroad, the [November] performance of Afro Cuban All Stars has been rescheduled for May 7," announced the Scottsdale Center for the Arts earlier this month.
In Volovan's case, the band's lawyers applied for the visa about a month in advance. The application's small print guaranteed the case would be processed within 15 days -- or their money back. On the 15th day, the band's label got merely a bureaucratic form from the INS' processing center in Laguna Niguel, California, which the band claims was unnecessary and unjustified and the INS insists is standard procedure. The $1,000 never returned.
Volovan's visa limbo follows the much-publicized absence of nominated Cuban artists from September's third Latin Grammy Awards, which prompted protests outside the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. On that occasion, Cuban legends Los Van Van, Lázaro Ros and Chucho Valdés (all of whom had visited the States in the past), as well as 18 other Cuban artists, were either denied entry visas or didn't get them in time for the awards ceremony.
Now, the Cubans' difficulty in entering the U.S. is at least understandable. Cuba, after all, is listed by the State Department as one of the world's terrorist-harboring states. Comparatively, Volovan's ordeal is more surprising, even though Mexico is one of the 27 countries on INS' post-9/11 watch list.
Volovan, which released its acclaimed eponymous debut album through Lakeshore Records in the U.S., was counting on the Rock en Ñ tour appearances to fan its flames. The tour, organized by Spanish songwriters' organization SGAE, has become one of the most anticipated events in Latin rock. This year, the tour also made stops in Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Argentina.
According to Eva Golinger, law associate at the New York-based Calderón law firm, which handled Volovan's petition, the paperwork she submitted October 4 arrived in California on October 7. Granted, this lay far inside the six months of lead time recommended by the INS, and perhaps the band can be accused of inviting trouble for the late start. But their start date was still close enough for the visas to arrive on time for the tour.
"I try to tell the INS that the nature of the music industry is that you can't know for sure [when you're going to play] until two months in advance," says Golinger. And even then, she says, there might not be any clear dates.
Golinger claims -- and a separate investigation by the New Times backs her up -- that Volovan met all the criteria it needed to meet for the visa, a list that included evidence of scheduled performances at prestigious events, press reviews, commercial activity, a domestic recording contract and a major award nomination (Volovan was nominated for an MTV Latin America Video Music Award).
Golinger says she contacted California October 10 to follow up. She was told that an internal audit had delayed all cases for two days. Nevertheless, Golinger says she was assured that there would be no problem, that the case was now with an INS officer and that she should hear back shortly.
Then, on October 21, the prescribed 15th day, and six days after Volovan was supposed to leave for Los Angeles, an RFE (Request for Evidence) form arrived via fax at Lakeshore's offices from the Laguna Niguel Center. Curiously enough, the fax stated that "the evidence submitted fails to address that the beneficiaries have been internationally recognized as a group for a sustained and substantial period of time, nor has it been established that the beneficiaries have achieved international recognition." (Don't point at us -- the bold and italics were put in by the INS.)
Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman for the INS in Los Angeles, said he couldn't comment directly on the case or on the language of the fax.
The RFE concludes requesting -- again -- those same documents plus some new information, like photos and accomplishments of each individual band member plus photos of each venue the band was going to perform at.
"What they did was send a form letter via fax," theorizes Golinger. "They looked up the regulations for the visa, and then they copied and pasted it onto this fax. It means that they're behind on premium-processing cases, but they don't want to return the $1,000. So on the 15th day they sent this request, which we already submitted and which obviously shows they're not processing the case. But, since they sent it on the 15th day, they can technically say that they are processing the case, thus buying them time and allowing them to keep the money."
Sounds like a scam, doesn't it?
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"Scam' is your word, not ours," responds Arcaute. "We have to be extremely cautious who we admit into this country, especially after 9/11. The INS regrets any inconvenience caused by recent delays and denials. But we are very much under the microscope and we have to be very careful.
"Off the record or on the record: It does not look odd or weird or scam or whatever word you use to color this . . . this is the way we operate," Arcaute continues. "I don't know what was sent, I wasn't there. But if any processing center is requesting additional information, it means that not all the questions have been answered."
Golinger is contesting the case on behalf of the band. Even if Volovan gets its work visa, it'll still be too little too late. For them, this goes beyond a simple cancellation.
"It's unfair that we can sell records for an American label but we can't play here," says Jorge Nájera, Volovan's keyboardist and guitarist. "What do they think we want to go there for? To work in the cornfields? We're musicians, dammit."