EXIT Theatre Cancels Show After US Immigration Blocks Canadian Performer

EXIT Theatre canceled its production of 'Crippled' after its application to host performers from Canada was denied. (Chris Hibbs)

EXIT Theatre founder Christina Augello spent a year's work and nearly $3,000 to bring Paul David Power's play Crippled to San Francisco. But just weeks before the show was set to debut at her Tenderloin performance space, she received a letter from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—an agency that works parallel to ICE under the Department of Homeland Security—stating that Power has been denied permission to perform in the United States on the basis that Crippled is not "culturally unique."

Augello argues that, as a law enforcement agency, USCIS is not qualified to judge an artistic production's uniqueness or artistic merit. She says that the decision was unfairly arbitrary, as she submitted letters of support from credible organizations such as Canada Council on the Arts, Actors' Equity Association, the National Arts Centre of Canada and the San Francisco-based Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability attesting to the play's singular depiction of a gay lead with disabilities grappling with the loss of his partner. 

Still, the denial letter Augello received from USCIS reads, "The contract, electric correspondences and itinerary you provided is insufficient because it did not provide any details to demonstrate that all of the performances or presentations will be culturally unique events."

"For them to be in charge of saying Paul can't bring his show there—they don’t have their expertise," Augello says. "These [artists] are able to come here [as tourists]. They’re not a threat to our safety."

The denial letter Augello received from USCIS stipulates that EXIT Theatre has a month to appeal the decision, but Augello says the opportunity has already passed to produce Crippled this season. She says that current policy for allowing international artists to perform in the United States is too restrictive for independent artists like the ones she works with.

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"They make it impossible for the indie theater artists," Augello says. "World-class artists have a machine behind them."

Without the resources of a well-funded performing arts organization, independent artists have no choice but to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to navigate United States immigration bureaucracy. 

Augello is a producer of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, a long-running indie theater fest, and says that due to the United States' restrictive laws, international participation in the festival has dwindled, and that several performers have been denied entry at the last minute. This USCIS policy is not just something that impacts theater, she says, but music, visual art and all realms of culture.

"We have a difficult time getting indie performers in the country," she says. "But as an indie performer myself, all I need to go to Canada is an invitation letter—and there are some restrictions, financial, et cetera—but it's very simple to go to Canada and work the fringe circuit."

Augello says the law needs to change. She created a MoveOn.org petition directed at Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, urging for the creation of a more straight-forward policy that would allow international artists to perform in the United States. The problem with current policy, she argues, is that it's too opaque and subjectively enforced.

USCIS policy defines "culturally unique" as "a style of artistic methodology, expression or medium which is unique to particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe or group of persons." And though Power's application included testimony from performing arts and disability experts on why his production is a singular work of art, USCIS' denial letter states that there was insufficient proof of this.

"We spent money and I believe we had the expertise and support and insight—we consulted with lawyers—and it still didn't work," Augello says, frustrated, implying that Crippled was just too experimental for USCIS to understand. "There is no category that applies, that's what it comes down to."

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