In a Perplexing World of Visas, a Glimmer of Hope for Artists

United States Passport
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Two decades ago, I was questioned at length by a suspicious immigration officer at LAX, wedding ring hidden in my pocket, as my U.S.-born husband waited for me nervously on the other side of a glass partition.

I was a Colombian national married to a U.S. citizen, with a caveat: I had come to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar on a J-1 “cultural exchange” visa. It requires the recipient to return to his or her home country for a minimum of two years before attempting to reside in the U.S. My lawyer warned me: “Do not say you’re married to an American, or you will be denied entry.”

This was at the height of the drug wars. Pablo Escobar had been killed a few years before, and Colombians were subject to strict security procedures going in and out of the country. There was no ban on us, but we were very suspect, all over the world. 

Now, anyone who has ever been detained at a border knows the absolute powerlessness felt when an immigration agent takes issue with your papers. But a U.S. visa is, to put it mildly, sacred.

As has been reported to death, last month President Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The ban bars citizens from seven countries -- Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen -- from entering the United States on any visa category, including green card holders, who by definition, are legal permanent residents of the U.S. Although a federal judge halted the ban, visas and travel status for thousands of people remain in limbo, as an appeals panel debates the limits of the ban.

Here’s the good news, though: Trump or no Trump, very accomplished artists and musicians can apply for an O-1 visa for “extraordinary achievement or ability,” provided they can show a sustained level of international acclaim. This includes meeting certain criteria that include winning international awards, like a Grammy or an Oscar.

Artists can also apply for P-1B visas as members of a group, for P-2 visas if they’re performing in the U.S. as part of a cultural exchange program (what many Cubans used to get), or for P-3 visas if they’re part of a “culturally unique program.”

But the O visas allow an artist to stay and work in the country for an extended period of time. Moreover, while visa availability is always an issue for the dozens of other visa categories (from non-immigrant categories like tourism and temporary workers, to immigrant visas like those given to spouses or refugees) -- meaning there’s a wait period -- “a green card for an artist of extraordinary ability is first preference." So says attorney Daniel Hanlon, founder of Pasadena-based Hanlon Law Group, which specializes in immigration law. “It’s the highest priority. I’ve never seen a delay in those.”

Superstars can very quickly get O-1s, for example. Non-superstars, however, have a quite a process to go through. “It’s very difficult if you’re doing it through that extraordinary ability [exemption]” says Hanlon.  “It’s interpreted quite narrowly, and you have to be the top of the top -- it’s very subjective.”

The most time-consuming aspect of the O-1 visa lies in compiling those “extraordinary ability” credentials. Luis Galeana, a Mexican national and graduate of Berklee College of Music, was initially denied when he applied on his own three years ago. 

“You have to establish you are not a star on the rise; you’re already extraordinary,” says Galeana. “So I went back to Mexico, worked with the government of my hometown to produce a cultural festival, and at the end of that, the mayor gave me a letter of recommendation.”

Galeana now has an O-1 artist visa as a producer, and can legally work in the U.S. for up to three years.

In some cases, artists apply for their green card based on extraordinary ability. That’s what my brother Ricardo Cobo, a classical guitarist, did over 15 years ago.

“I had to show all my past concert reviews, including Alice Tully and Merkin Hall, my awards, a signed contract with management that showed my fees and booking schedule... They asked me for letters of recommendation from conductors and department heads,” says Ricardo, who gathered information for over two years, and is now guitar chair at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

“People say we’re not vetted, but the fact is, we’re over-vetted,” he adds.

Surprisingly, Hanlon says he hasn’t seen a surge in extraordinary ability visa applications overall, particularly when it comes to green cards.

“If you’re a big-time star, you may not want to get a green card, because once you do, the IRS will tax you based on your worldwide income,” he cautions.  “I’ve had people get it and a year later, give it up.”

Hanlon does see a steady flow of P-visas, which allow artists who are not world famous to work or perform for cultural exchange and culturally unique programs. And he’s also seen a surge in calls from people who are afraid.

“[Border agents] are human beings, giving visas, stopping people at the airport,” says Hanlon. “They have a lot of discretion. It can affect anyone when the president wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Oh I don't like these people,’ which is exactly what he did.”

As for me, back in the day when no one liked Colombians, I was able to get in post-honeymoon. But I was never able to revoke the ironclad requirements of my J-1 visa. For two years, I shuttled back and forth on my tourist visa (which, by the way, is extremely hard to get) until I was able to apply for my green card as the spouse of an American citizen. Yes, the interview was like in the movies: we took our wedding album with us and answered questions about our teeth-brushing habits.

Ten years later, I became a U.S. citizen.  Today, I’m able to fly almost anywhere in the world, visa-less, thanks to the latitude and goodwill afforded to me by my U.S. passport, and my luggage is no longer ransacked at every single port of entry. But beyond the convenience, most of us immigrants truly appreciate that passport. We appreciate living here. We appreciate the liberties, and the opportunities and the generosity of spirit.

And I like to think that, by and large, we respond in kind.