(New York, NY) – U.S. immigration officials rejected visas for the cast and crew of a play by acclaimed writer Conchi León set to be staged in Chicago this weekend. In a statement today, PEN America said the visa restrictions appeared to be part of an ongoing pattern of U.S. government officials suppressing cultural exchange.

“This is just the latest in a deeply disturbing trend limiting international cultural and intellectual exchange in the U.S.,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of U.S. Free Expression Programs. “From foreign scholars to artists to students seeking entry to the United States, we are seeing what appears to be a rise in the denial or revocation of visas that may be tied to people’s political views or their creative products. Such denials limit the free exchange of ideas across borders, and they place undue limits on Americans’ ability to hear and experience the stories of people from other countries and cultures.  These visa denials and the subsequent cancellation of her play send an alarming message that the contributions of international creative artists to our cultural fabric are not being recognized and valued. That is a shameful stance for the United States to take.”

Organizers were forced to cancel the upcoming U.S. production of León’s play “La Tia Mariela.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not comment on individual cases, though according to the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, which organizes the festival where the play was to be staged Saturday, the crew and cast were denied visas because “they were determined to not be ‘culturally unique.'” In an interview with NBC News, León said, “I think the argument is absurd and out of place because my work of 20 years is precisely known for its cultural footprint.” 

PEN America has previously highlighted the importance of cultural exchange and urged commitments from the government to allow entry for individuals attempting to visit the United States. In 2017, PEN America filed a friend of the court brief along with more than 30 other arts organizations in the case of International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, urging the Supreme Court to strike down the Trump administration’s travel ban. The amicus brief represented the arts organizations’ common concern that, in addition to its violation of religious freedom, the ban also represented a violation of Americans’ First Amendment rights to receive information by restricting the international exchange of intellectual and artistic discourse. 


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892