By Katherine Jennings
On March 9, 2017, the Center for Art Law held an Art Law Mixer addressing the timely and provocative topic of immigration issues confronted by immigrant artists with the recent issuance of EO 13769, among other anti-immigrant measures. The 45th President commenced his presidency with a barrage of Executive Orders (EOs) including EO 13769*, which was signed by Trump on January 27, 2017, and restricted travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries and by all refugees. This EO has had far-reaching and devastating effects on immigrants including immigrant artists. It has wreaked havoc and confusion at the borders. Antagonizing foreign dignitaries, it has quickly been met with outrage and resistance by artist activists, art organizations, and lawyers.
The Georges Bergès Gallery, a stylish, SoHo gallery with an international focus, was the apt and welcoming site of the two-hour event, a first Center for Art Law (the “Center”) program to address immigration issues. It was composed of a wine and cheese reception and presentation by the founders of Lehach Filippa, an immigration law firm intended to serve creative professionals, followed by a Q&A. The discussion was moderated by Irina Tarsis, founder of the Center. Attendees included lawyers, artists and law students. After a brief warm up period during which attendees were encouraged “to talk to someone you didn’t come with,” Georges Bergès, the founder of the eponymous contemporary art gallery, spoke briefly to welcome all and to talk about the global perspective of his gallery. Bergès said his goal is to find authentic artists who are working in their own cultural context.
On to the substantive portion of the evening, Tarsis introduced Alejandro Filippa, Esq. and Michael Lehach, Esq, founding partners of Lehach Filippa. Lehach and Filippa spoke about the O-1 visa, commonly referred to as the “artist visa”, and the process of applying for work permits as a foreign artist. The current political climate and the effects of the anti-immigrant executive orders from President Donald Trump was also a topic of discussion. Filippa speculated that if the current precedent of an excessive number of executive orders is any indication, we will likely see more pushback and restrictions to immigration applications and processes in the future.
In order to qualify for an O-1 visa, or artist visa, an applicant must demonstrate “extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue to work in the area of extraordinary ability.” Extraordinary ability in the field of arts means “distinction.” The Immigration Act of 1990 (Pub.L. 101-649, 104 Stat. 4978) was a national reform of immigration that, among other things, excluded artists and entertainers (as well as athletes and nurses) from qualifying for H-1B visas. Two new categories, O and P, were introduced for extraordinarily skilled foreigners in the arts and sciences. The 1990 legislation was created in response to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (Pub.L.), aka the McCarran-Walter Act, which was meant “to exclude certain immigrants from immigrating to America, post-World War II and in the early Cold War.
Clearly, both Lehach and Filippa enjoy their law practice and are competent, dedicated professionals. Their passion was evident as they spoke about the process of creating a solid application in order to achieve success in obtaining an artist visa. Advocating for their clients is predicated upon a solid application with supporting documentation. Involved in facilitating artist visas and residence applications, they represent foreign creative professionals who want to work in the US and creative organizations seeking foreign talent to work in their US office. Their clients are from diverse industries such as the performing arts, music, fashion, film, photography, design, fine art, journalism and more. These “extraordinary aliens” have included tattoo artists, dancers, and rappers. The client may seek Temporary Work Visas and /or Permanent Residence based on Extraordinary Ability.
Lehach and Filippa outlined the proof needed to establish a valid application for an artist visa. In addition to a detailed resume, the client should include all relevant documents regarding their awards, notable clients, publications and press, and work history. An applicant must provide at least eight references by professionals who can attest to the extraordinary abilities of the applicant. Noting that an applicant’s file can be huge, they also spoke about how they have to be from important and respected sources. Lehach noted that it would not do a client any good if he were to provide his private residence as a gallery that would show the applicant artist’s work. Rather, the gallery must be a well-known and established entity.
Another crucial component of the application is an itinerary of the events and activities in the beneficiary’s field of extraordinary ability. You must have a plan of what you will be doing, with whom and when, and it has to be concrete. This constitutes the Sponsorship aspect of the application. For example, the applicant must provide an established list of galleries who will show his or her work and a concomitant timeline. An Employer, an Agency, or an Agent is an acceptable sponsor. Finally, it is helpful for the applicant to have a portfolio as a physical manifestation of the accomplishments detailed in his or her resume.
Lehach and Filippa also spoke about the case of an application for an Artist Visa being rejected. They said it is much better to refile, than appeal, because the immigration agents can be fickle. Noting that it can often be difficult to decide what constitutes extraordinary ability, they said it is crucial to initially establish a solid case. Their law firm also deals with other immigration issues such as obtaining permanent residency, obtaining a green card, and asylum issues, and extension of artist visas.
The presentation was followed by a lively question and answer session. Both presenters showed obvious delight in their chosen field and were quick to address each question thoughtfully. One interesting tidbit revealed during the Q&A was that under the right circumstances there is even a provision for bringing an artist’s muse into the country on a visa. As for the immigration ban that instigated the theme of the evening, “a judge sitting on an Island in the Pacific” ruled it unenforceable.
*Note that on February 3, 2017, EO 13769 was given a temporary restraining order in a decision from the Ninth Circuit of the Court of Appeals. EO 13769 was revoked as of 3/16/17.
About the Author: Katherine Jennings is a lawyer and contemporary realist oil painter living in New Jersey. She has a B.A. in History from Duke University and a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law where she was an Associate Editor of the Fordham International Law Journal. Having practiced intellectual property and immigration law, she is also certified as an Art Law Mediator with VLA. She was recently accepted into the Copyist Program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her work may be viewed at www.katherinejenningsfineart.com.