I Helped Immigrant Artists Get Visas. And The Process Is A Bureaucratic Mess.

I was a jaded, burnt-out mess covered in paper cuts from documents and tears lamenting our country’s labyrinthine burea
I was a jaded, burnt-out mess covered in paper cuts from documents and tears lamenting our country’s labyrinthine bureaucratic bullshit.

I had just abruptly left a job writing almost exclusively about Lindsay Lohan for $100 a week. To be fair, it was 2010, and she was very busy.

But with each post that flowed from my tapping fingers, I felt... gross. I was making the world just a little bit worse. So I quit.

Promising myself that whatever job I took next would be overtly helpful to the world, I answered a New York Craigslist ad for a legal writer specializing in immigrant artist visas, also known as O-1 visas. I shrugged and sent a resume. There had been a lot of legal nonsense for Lindsay. I could hack it.

Fast forward four years, and I was an immigration law ninja. Of course, I was also a jaded, burnt-out mess covered in paper cuts from documents and tears lamenting our country’s labyrinthine bureaucratic bullshit.

The office I worked for specialized in the O-1 visa, which is a 3-year working visa for “aliens of extraordinary ability,” (a quote that would make a fantastic T-shirt). This covered a wide variety of creative careers fine artists, musicians, fashion designers, actors, photographers, journalists, contortionists and documentary filmmakers. I had two magician clients, one who kept a white alligator in his Chelsea loft.

My job was to walk them through the application process, writing and compiling their cases to send to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. It was also kind of my job to be their friend ― a kind, real human person during a scary, expensive moment in their lives.

There are really only two working visas you can be approved for, and both rely highly on your ability to get hired (or “sponsored”) by a money-making company and then have that company agree to attach itself to you for three years. They are the O-1 and the H-1B visas.

Within the confines of a working visa, you cannot work for any other company during that time. You can’t freelance. As you can imagine, this shows an incredible gap in understanding on the USCIS’s behalf on what an artist is.

I honestly would have thought the approval of humans’ lives rested on the decisions of manatees. Or robots. Or babies.

Even on the rare chance that a jazz singer is offered a three-year contract singing somewhere, she is barely making enough money to live here. She can’t waitress or nanny legally. And she has to somehow come up with the thousands of dollars it takes to renew said visa a few years later, hoping she can find a new sponsor company or stay with the same one. It was often an exhausting loop.

If you are the type of creative where it does make sense to secure a full-time salaried position, (something the government understands), you have to explain that to your future employer. Imagine you’re a graphic designer and you have to explain while you are interviewing that you need the company to promise to hire you for at least three years, AND that you won’t be able to start for at least two months.

The sponsor company is just half of it. You also need to prove that you meet the criteria for “extraordinary ability.” This involves letters of recommendations from successful people in your field (which is why I once had a very strange phone call with James Franco), an expansive portfolio of your work, and press coverage. Press coverage was a big one.

If you had a handful of interviews in major publications that a USCIS agent could recognize (we often asked ourselves when compiling the cases, “would our moms in Kansas be impressed by this case?”), then you were in. But plenty of creative jobs don’t come with press. A journalist should NOT have press about themselves. And when was the last time you saw press about a photo retoucher? It was our job to explain various creatives careers and define success within those terms. 

The O-1 visa cases were a thing of beauty once we were finished with them. Sky-high, marked and signed, printed to perfection, with a crisp check signed on top like a cherry. I would then package them into a box, and sprint down Fifth Ave., arms screaming, to get to the FedEx before it closed. If you were one day late, the stakes were high. One mistake and someone could be out of status.

Once the case was out, the waiting game began. Depending on how much you paid, you could hear back in two weeks or four months. Furthermore, it was not always as black and white as an approval or denial. Reviewing agents often came back with questions before a denial was issued, some of which (OK, most of which), were dumb as hell.

Every so often, an agent would call on the phone to gain further insight into a case. If this hadn’t happened I honestly would have thought the approval of humans’ lives rested on the decisions of manatees. Or robots. Or babies. We would gather around the phone like it was Christmas.  

It was usually the same guy. We called him Officer Pajamas because he worked out of his home, instead of the sterile government building we imagined. We envisioned him on a pullout couch surrounded by cases, coffee in one hand, highlighter in another.  

Sometimes his question was, “What does a director of photography do?” despite the fact that we had written him 27 pages about this exact thing. An approval or a denial sometimes depended on his understanding. So we relished any opportunity to educate Officer Pajamas on the ins and outs of shoe designing or playwriting.

One time we were hired to work with all five members of a musical group that you definitely have heard of. There were inarguably famous, and within one short year had gone from relative obscurity to international fame. Grammy-famous.

They wanted green cards. Each of their individual cases were stacked so high we had to weigh them down with legal books. Pages upon pages of press. Carrying those boxes one by one to FedEx made my arms hurt for days after. Did they fly through for approval? Nope. Request for evidence (for only a few of them), because they had not met the “sustained acclaim” category.

In the end, they were all approved, but not until we were tasked with writing lengthy letters about the nature of “sudden fame,” explaining that years of work and talent go on behind the scene.  

These artists just inspired me so much to take more life risks.

Some nights I would cry in the elevator, dreading having to tell a client the next day about some exhausting question we had received from the USCIS, or terrified I had falsely checked some box on the 30+ forms that would leave them out of status.

The relationships I had with clients were emotional and hard and rewarding.

I felt such a tangible moment of “I helped” when I got to hand someone an approval notice, or when I heard that they had entered safely into the country, where they could now relax and focus on their work. There were a lot of hugs, and some clients I now consider good friends, whose art I am proud to have hung on the walls of my apartment.  

I eventually left immigration work for a few reasons. I think the biggest one was that these artists just inspired me so much to take more life risks. I would see them risk everything for the chance to follow their artistic dreams in the country they thought could bring them the most opportunity. If they were willing to put so much on the line, like money or family, and deal with bureaucratic degradation to get a chance at living those dreams, why couldn’t I start writing more from my shitty couch in Bushwick?  

Sometimes now, I will see an old client’s name pop up somewhere unexpected: an editorial spread in a magazine; big, shiny and printed on a beautiful new coffee table book; a rolling movie credit or winning a Tony. I think about how much better they are making this country every single day, how much richer we are with them, and how lucky I was to have been a small part in helping them get here.