Elite artists face challenges on green cards

How do you prove ‘extraordinary ability’ during pandemic?

EVEN ELITE ARTISTS are having difficulty getting green cards for permanent residency in the United States.

The federal government is on pace to issue 32 percent fewer green cards this year to those with “extraordinary artistic ability.” Part of the downturn is the result of a slowdown in processing applications for the visas due to the pandemic. But applicants are also finding the pandemic is handicapping them in a different way – making it more difficult to prove they are as extraordinary as they claim.

Unless applicants have won a Grammy or an Emmy award, they have to demonstrate through press clippings, reviews, performing contracts, and box office receipts that they have risen to the top of their field and have won national or international acclaim.

But all of that is difficult to do in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down nearly all performance venues.

“How can the client show proof of future work when there is a prohibition over the last six months and possibly for the next year that the client will have work lined up? This is definitely a problem,” said Eileen Morrison, an immigration attorney who works with applicants for the extraordinary artist visas.

EunAe Lee, a world-class pianist from South Korea who is now based out of Boston on a temporary visa, finds herself in this situation. She came to New York on a student visa in 2004 and studied at Juilliard and Northwestern. Years of music education and performances culminated in her PhD in musical arts.

Lee, unlike most classical musicians, is able to sight-read, meaning she can perform an entire composition despite having only having a brief opportunity to scan the music. It’s a rare gift, which enables her to perform under difficult circumstances, with only minutes of advance preparation. She’s performed all over the US and in parts of Europe, but despite her past successes, she faces the real possibility of deportation because of her inability to do much performing recently.

EunAe Lee performs in concert. (Photo by Woo Hyun Chae)

“It’s been very challenging lately,” Lee said, adding that she had several shows and festivals for the summer and fall canceled at the beginning of the pandemic. “My dream is to remain in the US as a professional pianist and to continue to share contemporary classical works with audiences throughout the United States. Sometimes, I’ll find myself thinking about South Korea, but I also love living in the US, and I cherish the opportunities it provides me. There absolutely is no other country or place that compares to it.”

The fees for her EB-1 application will cost her over $4,200. It usually takes 10 months to a year to process the visa successfully in Boston.

Similar to Lee, Nima Janmohammadi came to the US from Iran to study at Boston’s New England Conservatory in 2011. He graduated in 2019 with a doctorate in musical arts in composition and a minor in music theory. He specializes in Persian music, which he’s been studying since the age of six, and plays the setar, a long-necked, four-stringed lute,

“It takes about 20 years to become a finished artist in Persian music,” he said. He studied with some of the most prominent masters of Persian music, including Hossein Alizadeh and the late Jalal Zolfonoun.

Janmohammadi currently teaches at the New England Conservatory in the theory, musicology, and contemporary improvisation departments. He has a special performer’s visa, but it does not allow him to leave the country, something he would like to do to visit family. So he applied, with the help of Morrison, for a visa for those with extraordinary artistic ability. He, too, worried about the pandemic’s impact on his application.

“I had lost so many concerts, master classes, and festivals,” he said. “The pandemic has been very difficult because it is impossible to perform in public.”

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

But he recently learned the part of his application claiming he is an artist of extraordinary ability was approved. He and Morrison are hopeful the rest of the application will be approved soon.

“Persian music is a beautiful art form and part of the cultural heritage of Iran. The world deserves to learn more about Persian music and its practitioners like Dr. Janmohammadi who can introduce others unfamiliar with the music and the instruments to something new and keep the cultural heritage alive,” said Morrison.