- On its surface, the O-1 “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” visa provides an ideal pathway to foreign artists looking to work in the United States.
- But the visa’s eligibility requirements demand prior achievements and national renown, making it largely inaccessible to emerging and diverse talent.
- Elective participation in a country’s immigration system should be an incentive, not a deterrent.
- Sam Corbin is a culture and humor writer based in New York.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
In the eyes of US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), I am what is known as an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability.” Do not be afraid, fellow earthling: This is only the official title for the O-1B, a talent-based work visa for artists whose barrier to entry is loosely summarized in the name: just be really, really good!
The visa allows its recipients to live and work in the United States indefinitely in their chosen field, without being bound to a single employer. With the visa’s prosperous title, unlimited term, and freewheeling sponsorship model, it’s as close as the immigration system gets to making good on the promise of the American Dream for young artists looking to achieve it.
In my own eyes, I am perhaps Alien, but far from Extraordinary. I can spend days in the same coffee shop wondering where my career is going, or when I’ll stop feeling like the last pang of creative inspiration I had was my last. And lately, in the silence afforded to me by the pandemic, I find myself starting to interrogate the visa process that made me feel this guilty about not having the answers. Is the O-1B a democratizing immigration mechanism, leveling the playing field between the Home and Away teams? Or is it a self-selecting system that, far from combating inequality across borders, becomes complicit in perpetuating it?
Not for the faint of self-esteem
While an O-1 can be given to high achievers in the arts, sciences or athletics, the O-1B is the visa’s subcategory for artists. It is renewable every three years, and unlike the more common H1-B visa for skilled foreign workers, it has no annual recipient cap. But the process of obtaining it is grueling, and not for the faint of self-esteem.
Going for an O-1B involves proving to the US government — over the course of roughly 400 pages of supporting materials — that you are already a little bit famous, and are in the process of becoming a lot more famous. Having testimonials from people who know your work helps. Having an Oscar helps more.
I was 22 when I first applied for this visa, a fresh-faced undergraduate toting my highly original NYU theater degree and the equally original dream of “making it” here, as a playwright, actor, or otherwise. I had come to New York from Toronto, and after my student visa expired, I was expected to either leave the country or get a visa to stick around. At the advice of all the legal professionals I spoke to, I decided to go for the O-1B, and thus had to prove the following to USCIS:
“Extraordinary ability in the field of arts means distinction. Distinction means a high level of achievement [….] to the extent that you are prominent, renowned, leading, or well-known in the arts.”
I was living in a basement in Bushwick with a former classmate. I didn’t have an Academy Award. (Note: I still don’t.) Apparently, I was supposed to be able to prove I was a national treasure before I’d figured out how to afford my rent.
Thankfully a gold statuette isn’t the only way to claim notoriety for immigration purposes, and I ultimately managed to prove mine by way of 14 recommendation letters and a 30-page resumé detailing every remotely important role and impressive affiliation I could dig up (also, a good lawyer).
It isn’t hard to see why the anomalous O-1B visa model suits the unpredictability and hybrid employment of a life in the arts. But its eligibility criteria all but ensure its inaccessibility to the emerging artists who should most be able to take advantage of it. Who can prove they’re vital to the American arts scene before they’ve gotten a foot in the door? It’s the job experience paradox, only with higher stakes: You need to stay in the country to be extraordinary, but you need to be extraordinary to stay in the country.
Frankly, the most extraordinary thing you can do for the artist visa is be able to pay for it. At the time of my latest O-1 renewal in 2020, the application fee was $460. In order to have the decision expedited so as not to risk overstaying my current visa, I paid a “premium processing” fee of $1,440. My lawyer’s fees, which were on the more affordable end, ran me around $4,000. I was lucky enough to be able to afford these exorbitant costs myself by virtue of having had help the first time around. But it’s a damning invoice for believers in American meritocracy.
There are, of course, challenges beyond the visa application requirements themselves, and I could certainly relay some of my own. But they were obstacles I faced as a white, cisgendered woman from Canada, all privileges which made both my initial application process and subsequent renewals easier than most.
Instead I’d rather invite you to consider how many more would-be Aliens of Extraordinary Ability are so discouraged by the prohibitive buy-in, or the lack of critical recognition afforded to them by an industry that already gatekeeps opportunity to the white and wealthy, that they don’t try at all.
‘Why don’t you leave?’
Complaints about the hassles of the immigration process occasionally engender responses like, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?” But why should elective participation in a country’s immigration system be a deterrent? Why should attempting entry feel like running a battering ram against fortress walls? (These questions are also relevant to need-based immigrants, like those at the Southern border, but that’s a discussion for another article.)
To you, fellow earthling, “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” may seem like impressive resumé fodder, or a fun opening line on a first date. To me, it’s come to define my relationship to a place that only occasionally seems to want me here. It’s my own personal American exchange rate, subject to drastic re-evaluation with every three rotations around the sun.
If I haven’t been profiled in a magazine, or sold out a show, or gained another 1,000 followers on Twitter, I treat it as an omen about my future in America. (Ask me how I’m doing in a year when live performance as a job category has effectively gone extinct!) And for artists whose means are as volatile as my mental state, this country won’t even offer the luxury of doubting themselves in a coffee shop on a weekday.
I’ll confide that certain restrictions feel like blessings. Being limited to jobs directly related to my visa title has given me a certain ambition and drive that colleagues of mine may struggle to maintain. It also gives me the opportunity to take stock, every few years, of why I still live in the US (a question whose premise seemed more and more absurd these last four years). And the answer is because, as Linda Ronstadt sang, I’m still willin’. I’m also willin’ to memorize the names of all the presidents in order someday, because it is allegedly on the citizenship test.
The privilege of my presence here is not lost on me. And I believe the desire to live and work in any country should provoke self-reflection. But disadvantages wrought by capitalism and racism cannot preclude the opportunity to do so. In the pandemic alone, we have seen our system reckoning with whose work is actually vital and worthy of special protection. I only invite the keepers of our borders to do the same.
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