Assimilating to predominately white Burlington has always been hard for those who come from elsewhere, especially warmer climates. Seny Daffe arrived here five years ago from Guinea.
"It was wintertime," Daffe recalled in a phone interview last week. "I didn’t go out a lot because it was too cold for me. In my country, it’s not that cold."
Daffe was granted a visa that allows culturally unique artists entry to the U.S. In Burlington, he joined the African dance company Jeh Kulu, where he taught drumming.
He held dance classes and ran workshops at local schools. He performed with the National Ballet of Guinea and performed at First Night events across the state.
"I love the Vermont community. I love the people over there," Daffe said. "You know what they say in my country? If you know something, you have to share it with people who don’t know. I want to share with the people who don’t know my culture."
In November, Daffe returned to Conakry, Guinea, to visit his family and brush up on his skills. But when he tried to come back to Vermont, he learned that he was now barred by federal immigration officials from returning to the U.S. Immigration lawyers want to use his case to show that the visa system is unfair for foreign artists.
Daffe says the State Department told him that his ties to this country were too strong – his ties to his own country too weak. The question was whether he intended to eventually return to Guinea.
"I told them I cannot stay in America forever," Daffe said from his home in Conakry. "I have a house here. I have family here. I have my kids here. I cannot stay forever."
Daffe’s case is not unique. Homeland Security says since 2006 the number of visa petitions rejected has spiked. And immigration lawyers say since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America’s visa program for foreign artists has become more complex.
The State Department wouldn’t talk on tape for this story. Instead, it points to a webpage that explains that visa applicants need to demonstrate that they have strong ties to their home country – and intend to go back.
"I don’t think that people quite understand. People need to see the faces," said Attorney Leslie Holman, who is with the American Immigration Lawyers Association and represents Seny Daffe.
From her third-floor office in downtown Burlington, she argues passionately for immigration reform. Holman says the current immigration system has created a road block for Vermont communities to make valuable cultural exchanges.
"We are one of the whitest states in the nation. We are somewhat isolated, and the opportunity to bring different cultures – different forms of dance, food – is really an important part of who we are," Holman said. "We pretend to be accepting but we don’t even have the means."
Holman worries that there’s no easy way to appeal the State Department’s decision in Daffe’s case. For now, the Burlington arts community is holding benefits to raise money to send to Daffe in Guinea. Petitions have also been filed with the State Department on his behalf.
And all Daffe says he can do is wait, and hope that his faith in the visa system is rewarded.