Protesters outside the American Embassy in London rallying against the entry ban on nationals from select countries (image by Alisdare Hickson via Flickr)

International artists who wish to work in the United States can do so by applying for the O-1 visa, a category for nonimmigrant, temporary “aliens with extraordinary abilities” who operate in fields such as art, athletics or education. On examination I found that implicit in the O-1 application that demands colossal documents, testimonials, and cash is an ultimate form of gatekeeping that determines whether one is considered an artist at all.

The logic behind a successful application is simple: A United States citizen who has expertise in the relevant field is to vouch that the visa applicant is so important for said field that they deserve to remain in the US to develop their career for up to three years. To verify such “extraordinary abilities,” the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) devised a set of evidentiary requirements: a combination of documents, testimonials, and career blueprints that narrate an individual’s past success and current potential. The preparation timeline for an application varies. Whereas an emerging artist might take more time to gather material and prepare for the visa interview, established artists might complete the process within a couple of months.

What are the benchmarks for extraordinary achievement that qualify someone for the O-1 visa? According to USCIS, a US-based peer group or labor entity should issue a union consultation letter that acknowledges the applicant’s accomplishments. For example, a musician may request a letter from the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

Secondly, eight to 10 “experts” in the relevant fields should pen recommendation letters loosely following the script: “I, a renowned expert in x field, have witnessed the applicant’s success through x and y accomplishments. (Here is the place to apply hyperbole such as, “She is the most talented artist I’ve ever known.”)

Immigration lawyers often provide templates so recommenders will only need to sign the letters. One artist reflected that his recommenders are eager to help because they empathize with the struggles of immigration (though this visa technically allows in those who are not expected to permanently take up residence). Additionally, a compilation of press such as reviews and interviews should demonstrate an applicant’s “critically acclaimed success.” Basically, USCIS should be able to easily find you on Google. One emerging artist ran an internet forensic search on herself to enhance her press material for the visa application.

Lastly, USCIS wants to determine that an individual will be able to financially sustain themselves. Something akin to an employment contract and an itinerary delineating past and future success should illustrate that an applicant had a track record of achievements and financial stability and that they will continue to have this stability in the future.

If an initial application is deemed “speculative,” USCIS will issue an RFE (request for further evidence). One emerging artist received the RFE in the form of a lengthy email from USCIS outlining detailed reasons and suggestions for improvement on a number of items in her application. These suggestions were only helpful insofar as they confirmed that immigration officers had little understanding of how things work in the art world. Her lawyer concluded that her multimedia video and performances works that explores the gaps and glitches in cross-cultural and interpersonal translations  might be “too avant-garde.”

While the O-1 visa is not only exclusionary and expensive, its selection criteria are also misaligned in terms of fairly assessing contemporary artists. For example, only individuals who played a starring or lead role in artistic productions are deemed “extraordinary” according to the visa provisions, however, this criteria is not applicable to artists who participate in group exhibitions. One artist’s participation in virtual exhibitions during the COVID 19 pandemic was dismissed by the visa authorities as invalid evidence. Other instances include foreign press material not being considered substantial if translation or readership statistics of the particular publishing platform are not provided. These examples demonstrate that a qualified artist by art world conventions might not be considered as such by the US immigration department.

The O-1 visa is one instance of a more privileged temporary-worker category that facilitates US extraction of global talents. Yet, like most other visa applications, it is as mind-numbing as it is nerve racking, particularly for artists who are less recognized in the English-speaking art world. As for many migrants, USCIS is like a faceless, tyrannical yet perennially bankrupt entity that haunts an applicant’s life like a ticking time bomb, dictating one’s fate to stay or depart.

Hence it’s humbling to read stories of artists like Hadi Fallahpisheh who finds a little humor through art while surviving the precarity of being in between visas. Immigration anxiety is real, but perhaps practicing and being an artist on one’s own terms is a way of challenging the discriminatory logics behind so-called “legal” immigration.

Are the O-1’s criteria for an artist’s worth compatible with that of the visual arts? On the one hand, compared to more abstract agendas in the arts, the O-1 visa demands a more straightforward, quantifiable assessment of artists’ qualifications. On the other hand, both immigration and art industries attribute values to CVs, portfolios and artists’ bios. Artist Natascha Sadr-Haghighian’s project, which allows artists to trade CVs, is a critique on these instruments of institutional gatekeeping. Projects like this erode the hegemonic emphasis on individual achievement by both art institutions and immigration policies, and cultivates a shift toward more collaborative and collective artistic endeavors.

Michelle Song is a writer, curator and researcher based in New York. She is a research assistant at the OSUN Center for Human Rights and the Arts at Bard College. She received her MA in curatorial studies...