Public Policy

Immigration: When Only 'Geniuses' Need Apply


Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of stories on Immigration in a Recession

In the coming weeks, President Barack Obama will begin his push to overhaul the U. S. immigration system, and almost every aspect of the effort will prove controversial. Millions of undocumented, low-skill immigrants and their supporters will square off against groups like the Minutemen, who want to close the border with Mexico and expel people who are in the country illegally. Technology companies such as Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM), and Google (GOOG) will argue to make it easier for high-skill workers to come to the U.S., while tech workers will lobby fiercely to restrict such programs.

Far away from these debates lies one quiet corner of U.S. immigration policy: the program for what are known as "genius" visas. These visas are awarded to immigrants with extraordinary abilities in the arts, sciences, education, business, or athletics. The program, for what are officially called O-1 visas, began in 1990 as lawmakers sought to separate these applicants from the pool of those seeking H-1B visas, the visa program for skilled immigrants used by many technology companies. While H-1B applicants must hold at least a bachelor's degree and possess some specialized skill, O-1 visas are allotted to a more elite crowd: those who can prove to U.S. immigration officials that they are the very top in their fields. Peter F. Asaad, an immigration attorney and adjunct professor of law at American University, calls the recipients "Nobel prize quality or equivalent."

The awards aren't that rare, but they do go to a small group. According to the U.S. State Dept.—which makes the grants to successful applicants—9,014 O-1s were awarded in 2008, up 40% from 2004. Among current O-1 visa holders are Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, Canadian author Jennifer Gould Keil, Israeli concert pianist Inon Barnatan, and members of the New York dance companies Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane.

There's no annual limit on the number of O-1 visas, as there is with the H-1B program, and no minimum education level. Still, labor groups in the U.S. often have to weigh in on whether they consider an applicant exceptional. From 2004 to 2008, approvals averaged 94%, according to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services.

Because so many recipients of an O-1 are artists, it's known in some circles as the "artists' visa." It's that nickname that piqued the interest of Analia Segal, an Argentine visual artist. After 10 years of working in Buenos Aires, Segal was ready for a change. The artist had had a taste of New York City when she'd come to show her work at the Argentine consulate in 1996. Experiencing the city's vibrant arts scene, she felt it was a place where she could evolve personally and professionally. After inheriting some money from her late grandmother, that dream became possible: In 1999, at age 32, she began an MFA program at New York University on a student visa. "I came to New York to prove myself," says Segal. "I wanted to become the best version of myself."

a rigorous application process

Segal wanted to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, and the key would be obtaining an O-1 visa. In the government application, "extraordinary ability" in arts means "a level of expertise and recognition that shows a high level of achievement, or that the person is one of few who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor." With the help of a lawyer, she spent seven months amassing evidence of her professional worth—press clips, samples, and supporting letters from peers and gallery owners—and by 2003 secured an O-1 visa. The rigorous and at times painful application process didn't deter Segal. "Following this path gave me confidence," she says. Soon after getting the visa, she received a $7,000 New York Foundation for the Arts grant. "I started to feel like I belonged," she says.

As relieved as she was, Segal wanted assurance that she could stay for good. O-1 visa holders are admitted for up to three years, with the option of renewing in 12-month increments. There is no maximum on how many renewals an O-1 visa holder can obtain, but that wasn't enough assurance for Segal. "I wanted the freedom of no one telling me when to leave," says Segal. She dove into the application process for an EB-1 green card, which provides permanent residency to those with extraordinary ability, and was able to obtain one. She says New York's competitive pressures helped move her along in the process. "The level of competition pushes you in many different ways," says Segal. "[And] society is structured so differently here. Latin society tends to be more about where you come from. In the U.S., you are what you make of your potential."

Segal, now 41, says she's very happy with the direction her personal life and career have taken. She continues to create and exhibit her art, and last year received a prestigious grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. She has also been a visiting artist at many universities in the U.S. and is engaged to an American artist.

Eric Shaub, who represents Segal, says that while the applications for O-1 visas and EB-1 green cards are tough, he rarely encounters problems after he sends in documentation. "In my experience, people who are really, truly extraordinary haven't had any problems," he says.

Looking at Segal's work—which includes sculpture, drawing. and photography—one would be hard-pressed to imagine how she could be taking work from an American. In one installation, continuous white wall tiles are interrupted by what looks like a tear. In another, a blank white wall is decorated with what appear to be three protruding lips. Another is a partially carpeted floor with protruding rubber or glue in some places. Segal describes her artistic philosophy on her Web site: "This body of installations examines the relationship between the body and one's immediate surroundings," she writes. "The fleshy quality they acquire as a result of this interaction reinforces the contrast between the transience of the body and the endurance of architecture."

embraced by lincoln center

Israeli pianist Barnatan, 30, is a Schubert enthusiast who started playing piano at age four. He came to the U.S. three years ago after living, studying, and performing for nine years in London. The U.K. had denied him what's known as "leave to remain," the equivalent of a visa in the U.S., but his O-1 application in the U.S. was a success. He was approved in 2006, but he's uncomfortable with the idea that some people would give him the label of genius. "I really dislike the word 'genius,' " he says. "For me, music is a sort of language. It's something I feel very naturally…. Labels don't mean much. It's like being applauded for breathing."

Within months of getting his visa, Barnatan's career was speeding ahead. He was offered a management contract, a residency at New York's Lincoln Center, and an album-recording opportunity. Many successes have followed: Last month he was two of five musicians awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant, a prestigious $25,000 prize designed to help young artists develop their careers. "I felt a million times more recognized and welcomed here [than in the U.K.]," says Barnatan. "Immediately it was apparent that there was a connection, some sort of symbiosis between the work I was doing and how people reacted to it."

Barnatan says that, in turn, he felt energized and full of new ideas. He says his work in New York inspired him to propose to curate a series for Lincoln Center based on the work of the last year of Schubert's life. He thought it might be a leap to get to take on such a project as a newcomer, but he received support for it. The three begin in November; he'll perform in two of the three. The music he has chosen "is very close to my heart," says Barnatan. He says he was struck that Lincoln Center was "so open to ideas, and to someone who is basically a new face," he says. "I felt immediately part of the process rather than an outsider."

Barnatan is aware of the complexities of the immigration debate in the U.S. and feels fortunate that he continues to feel welcome here. "There is an understanding that really you can't just replace one artist with another and have the same thing," he says. "Every architect, painter, and musician has something very individual to say. I am not stealing a concert from an American pianist, for example."

Both Barnatan and Segal say they feel immense gratitude for the lives they've been able to create in the U.S. Pinned to the wall in her Brooklyn art studio is the letter Segal received when she first obtained her O-1 visa. She smiles broadly as she recalls returning from her first trip overseas after getting the visa. She presented her documents to the inspection agent who then looked up and smiled at her. "Welcome home," he said.

Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York.

0115_moira_herbst_bio
Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek.

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