Stalled immigration reform takes toll on Polish theater group

October 29, 2013

WBEZ/Odette Yousef
Pressure for Congress to vote on immigration reform has continued, though the U.S. House has only 18 days left in its legislative calendar.

A small Polish theater company says they’re another victim of stalled legislation on immigration reform. Teatr Brama Goleniow is regrouping after U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services denied eight of their company members visas to bring a stage production to the Logan Square/Avondale neighborhood.

The group had planned Chicago showings of Emotions in Sound  in late September, a production they’ve previously brought to the Ukraine, Peru, Scotland and Greece. But the U.S. visa snafu has delayed their plans to share the production with U.S. audiences.

“In the beginning we applied for tourist visas,” explained Jennifer Crissey, actor and project manager at Teatr Brama.

Crissey said she had been advised by officials at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw to apply for B-visas because their company was small, and did not view their intended travel as one that would yield commercial profit.

“The actors going wouldn’t be receiving salary, they wouldn’t be getting paid to do this project,” she said.

Crissey said when the group went to the U.S. embassy in Warsaw for their visa interview in August, however, they were told that they should instead apply for artists’ visas.

“So they essentially advised us one thing, and then changed their mind,” she said.

Crissey said that’s when she asked the company’s Chicago-based partner, Voice of the City, to sponsor their petition for P-3 visas, a class of visa specific to culturally unique artists and entertainers.

“I think it was very evident in the application that this was geared for commercial exchanges on a scale that we just weren’t doing,” said Dawn Marie Galtieri, artistic director of Voice of the City, an arts alliance based in the Logan Square/Avondale neighborhood, “so it started to make us very nervous.”

Galtieri said she had to obtain a letter from the American Guild of Musical Artists to support their petition, as well as provide additional paperwork attesting to the wages and hours of the actors, contracts detailing the parameters of the production, and flyers and press releases about the show.

“Really, it’s a process for big stars,” Crissey said. “It’s when some big name comes from another country to play here, and they’re playing at like United Center or some big stage like that.”

Crissey estimated that in total, Teatr Brama spent nearly $3,000 in applying for the visas. Still, they were denied.

“And I never in a million year thought that after providing them with all of the evidence that they asked for that we would get such an empty answer like, ‘this isn’t culturally unique enough,’” said Crissey, “because, who can be the judge of that?”

Crissey and Galtieri said they are now cobbling together an ensemble of actors from Chicago and across Europe who have authorization to travel to the U.S., and that they plan to move forward with the production in the absence of the original cast.

The show will be staged in mid-November.

A representative from Congressman Michael Quigley’s (D-Illinois) office said that if Congress had moved on immigration reform this summer, Teatr Brama’s visa woes might not have happened.

Poland, unlike many of its European Union counterparts, is not included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. without first obtaining visas. Quigley and other members of Illinois’s congressional delegation have  been pushing to expand the parameters of the program to include more countries, such as Poland.

In addition to a standalone bill that he has introduced in the House, Quigley also helped ensure that language to broaden the program be included in immigration legislation that the U.S. Senate passed in June.

Meanwhile, with just 18 days left in the House legislative calendar this year, pressure continues to mount for U.S. House Republicans to take up an immigration bill.

On Tuesday, hundreds of conservatives from business, faith and law enforcement groups converged on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers to nudge them toward bringing legislation to the floor for a vote.

“Ultimately, if you’re going against this legislation, you are absolutely going against the entire faith community and you are also going against essentially what every respected economist in America has been asking for,” said Sheriff Mark Curran of Lake County.

Curran is among a handful of conservatives from Illinois joining the effort. The effort is organized by the Partnership for a New American Economy, the Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform network, FWD.us, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Earlier this month, House Democrats introduced a comprehensive immigration bill, after a bipartisan committee failed to produce its own bill. Congressman Jeff Denham (R-California) is the sole Republican to cosponsor the bill, along with 185 Democrats.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef.