The Trump Administration’s review of the H1B Visa program for foreign workers is getting lots of attention, but another visa program called the O-1 is perhaps equally objectionable to people who want to put America First.
According to government, the O-1 is for “Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement” in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry. Recipients are supposed to have been “recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” So if you’re Mick Jagger or Bono and you want to tour in the U.S. for the 36th time this summer, you get an O-1. They’re taking good jobs from American rockers, but it’s hard to hate on the Rolling Stones and U2.
But like so many government programs, the O-1 is often exploited, or outright abused. In this case by people far below any reasonable definition of extraordinary. Heat Street recently spoke with a French television producer named Colette (name and some details changed to protect the guilty) who got sick of low media industry wages in her native Paris and figured out how to get a Brooklyn based TV production company to sponsor her application for an O-1. Colette used to have a nice job at 60,000 Euros a year for the French national broadcaster. The kind of place where you see oceans of humans standing around smoking cigarettes with nice Lacoste shirts and cashmere sweaters around their shoulders. She is bright, energetic, and an asset to her employer. But is she “extraordinary”?
According to the government, “extraordinary ability in the field of arts means distinction. Distinction means a high level of achievement in the field of the arts evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered to the extent that a person described as prominent is renowned, leading, or well-known in the field of arts.”
Colette is good, but she ain’t that good. She earns more in Brooklyn than in Paris, but that’s a slot many thousands of American media types would like to have.
It turns out the O-1 is a standard way of obtaining work permission for a range of great, but not extraordinary, foreigners looking to work in fashion, advertising, television, and film. It’s increasingly common for aspiring actors from overseas. According the government, more than 60% of O-1 visa recipients reside in New York or California. Between auditions, they sometimes work off the books as bartenders and waiters. And so the wheel turns.
There is an 85,000 per year cap on the H1B visa, but there is no cap on these “extraordinary people” visas and they are growing in popularity with more than 40,000 extraordinary aliens allowed in during 2015.
If you have a bit of money, connections, and can concoct the claim, the O-1 has many advantages. And a whole industry has sprung up to exploit the situation.
“An individual can apply for an O-1 at any time during the year and there are no visa quotas as there are with H-1B visas. O-1 classification can be extended indefinitely—as long as the model continues to work in their field and has a petition sponsor,” according to the website of the New York law firm Wildes and Weinberg which handles clients from the fashion world.
“The model must be able to demonstrate that he or she has a reputation of distinction. This requirement can be met by submitting evidence such as: magazine tear sheets, ad campaign work, runway photos, and high rates of compensation. It is also helpful to demonstrate that the model has worked with distinguished model agencies abroad and to provide testimonial letters from prominent individuals who can confirm the model’s extraordinary reputation and work history.”
So the translation here is that some rich dude or a so-called “top modeling agency” in Minsk, Warsaw, or Sao Paolo has to write you a recommendation letter. Repeat this same ridiculous criteria across the applicable industries and you’ve got a big scam.