America’s Got Talent: On The Unique Anxiety of Immigrant Creatives
Nada Alic / WNW Member
There are certain personal matters most people would rather not discuss: how much money you make, how much of your life is actually governed by astrology, is or what’s really on your Spotify workout playlist. These things brush up against something tender in us, something that reminds us we are vulnerable, that we have private selves and private struggles that are nobody’s business but our own. So when I asked my fellow creative immigrant friends and colleagues about their immigration experiences, it triggered a familiar anxiety—a reluctance to revisit the painful, expensive and sometimes humiliating process of immigrating as a creative to the US. Most people didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. And for good reason, my friend Rosanna, an LA-based Canadian filmmaker says, “I feel less open to share my visa status. I didn't want it to close me off to opportunities, but I didn't want to break the law.” There’s this sense that you’ve been interrogated enough, you did it and you’d rather just forget it for the next couple of years until it starts all over again.
I totally get it, I barely want to relive it myself. Still, it’s important to talk about it in the hopes of educating others: those who hire us, those who work with us, those who think we’re somehow getting off easy or taking something from this country. The truth is, it’s not easy. Being a creative person is hard enough, but hinging your future on the quality of your creative work is something else entirely. We all had to sacrifice something, believe in ourselves, work hard, endure the exhaustive legal process and continue to work just to be allowed here, and mind you this is the best case scenario for any immigrant. Most immigrants have endured far worse, given up far more, can’t afford legal representation and continue to face enormous economic and cultural obstacles just to be here. But maybe by examining the unique experiences shared by creative immigrants, we can begin to grasp the bigger picture of immigration and how it impacts those contributing their talents to arts, culture, and innovation here.
I grew up with immigrant parents, so I’ve always been part of a secret club of people caught between two worlds. It’s in our private circles that immigration talk becomes the connective tissue that bonds us. Whenever I’m at a party and I meet another immigrant, I feel an immediate friendliness, like we’ve both gone through it, whispering to one another about how awful it is and trade tips, in the off-chance our iPhones are tapped by the Government. We’ll talk endlessly about lawyers, union fees, visa types, the agony of waiting and waiting, the pressures of producing creative work not just for myself, but as a means to stay in the country for a few more years, and the unique absurdity of trying to explain what a zine is to a Government official.
The O-1: A Golden Ticket
As a privileged, well-educated Canadian, I’m fully aware that my immigrant experience barely registers on the scale of immigration woes. I moved to LA from Toronto four years ago to work for an advertising agency; since then I’ve moved on to other roles and now freelance. I started out on TN visas and now I’m on the O-1 and in that time, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on countless hours building up scrapbooks of specialness for myself just to stay here. Real talk: I put $6k on my credit card then spent a year paying it off just so I could do it. Getting a visa also required an enormous amount of proof of achievement: press, published work, awards, letters of recommendation, etc. The whole process feels like running on the treadmill while trying to paint a portrait then subsequently having that portrait judged by a border agent. Derrick, a New York-based video director agrees, “it’s a very time-consuming and anxiety ridden few months to get it all in order.”
The O visa is a classification of extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics. In order to get it, you have to demonstrate that you are the best in your field, in that they literally cite Nobel Prize on the list of accepted documentation. So when you get the coveted O-1, you get an official document from the US Government that recognizes you as an Alien with Extraordinary Ability, and it is the closest you will ever feel to getting Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. You will want to include it in your Tinder profile. You will want to frame it. You will want to pull it out and just look at it when you’re feeling down. Having an O-1 legitimizes your creative ambitions in a way that feels official. It also means you better get to work, because in three years, you’ll have to do it again, with new press, new clients and new evidence of your continued extraordinary-ness, just to extend your visa for an additional year at a time. No presh.
Welcome to the Upside Down
But as the current administration’s anti-immigration stance intensifies and asylum-seekers are denied entry, families are torn apart at the border, or left to wait in detentions centers dangerously ill-equipped to provide basic medical attention to children, as border security tightens and nationalists become emboldened to commit hate crimes against marginalized groups and we more or less live in the Upside Down now—those of us who made it here through some combination of extreme privilege and luck (and I don’t know, witchcraft?) feel pangs of guilt, anger, and anxiety. Derrick says, “it felt more stringent this time around, but none of my problems compare with what visible minorities and people on any of the administrations' targeted country list would be facing, I'm sure.”
The all-out assault on human rights and American idealism has created an environment for immigrants of all types to feel a constant low-level anxiety and a feeling that we’re not welcome. It’s hard enough trying to get here. It’s harder still feeling like you’re living on borrowed time, with the condition that you will continue your role as an “Extraordinary Person” as deemed by the Government. Rosanna says, “I feel unsure about the status of my visa. I feel like my hard work in trying to get my O-1 could be taken away from me without warning. It also makes me sympathize with those who have lived here their whole lives, but don't have citizenship elsewhere. I can't imagine not having a second home to go back to.”
Art and Anxiety
While most of the more immediate threats of anti-immigration policies affect creatives specifically (Trump regularly touts a “merit-based system”) we’re still left with reasonable fears about our future while we carve out new lives for ourselves and try to make art. We’re not immune to the messaging or the limitations imposed on us, and after a while that daily anxiety becomes internalized and affects other aspects of our lives and work. Frances, an illustrator says, “most of the money I've made from illustration in the last six months have gone towards paying off my lawyers and visa fees. I've taken on a lot of jobs that I would have turned down before. It hasn't felt like a creative time and I'm stretched thin.”
Frances came to support her then-boyfriend as he pursued his music career, “I work as a freelance illustrator but his band was my biggest client, doing all their art direction, illustrating album art and merch.” She was on the O2 then and is currently in the process of applying for her O1 since the O2 tethers her to work exclusively for his band and she wanted more flexibility, “applying for the O1 has been a lot more difficult. I hired new lawyers but there's still a ton of work that I am doing on my own.”
Financial strain is just one part; there’s also always a feeling that while you pay taxes and cultivate a sense of home, that the US is not your home and you don’t have the same rights as citizens, Derrick says: “it has a large effect on your ability to engage in local and federal politics... I have no ability to vote, and arrest is not an option, so the feeling is generally to keep one's head down when in this country effectively as a guest.” Frances echoes that on both sides of the border: “I often have anxiety when participating in any form of activism. Speaking out against politicians and policies I disagree with on social media, joining rallies and marches or even making political art. When the Montreal education protests were going on a few years ago, I was worried to leave the house. Marches were forming all over the city and my friends were arrested just for assembling. I stayed home in fear of being arrested and not being able to cross the border for work.”
It comes at a personal cost too, she adds. “And while I wait for the new visa to process I am hesitant to date and become involved in a serious relationship.” Conversely, Scott, a designer and musician from New Zealand has to continue to prove to the Government that he is still legitimately married, “another challenge is after two years of a Green Card, it expires and they check up and see if your still legitimately married before they renew. I apparently didn't have the appropriate amount of info, so my first attempt got denied and we had to go through another whole process to prove my wife and I were still in love cohabiting and married.” He now has a family in LA and sometimes wonders if all of it is really worth it, “I have a child here and New Zealand is on his ‘shithole’ list, so I think if anything it makes my friends and family back home wonder more than ever why we chose to live here. I ask myself the same question a lot.”
America’s Got Talent
What can we do? How do we make this process easier and more accessible for people? How do we make immigrants want to stay and thrive and innovate here? I don’t know, but I think we should talk about it more. I think there’s a stigma about talking about it, because immigrants don’t want to seem like too much of a hassle for employers to deal with (so they quietly take on all administrative work themselves); they might feel embarrassed about facing rejections and what will happen to them if they one day get denied entry or visa renewal (it is a recurring nightmare of mine). They are trying so hard to just live their lives without worrying about what will happen on a tweet-by-tweet basis. So we keep quiet, try our best not to rock the boat and also hope to somehow become exceedingly famous in the coming years. It’s not the healthiest emotional state to sustain long term.
I think the best thing we can do is listen to immigrants, help them find resources and people who can explain things like applying for a visa, finding a lawyer, getting a social security card, a credit card and health insurance. These things might be a no brainer for Americans but they were Rubik’s cube-level hard for me. We should also hire them and pay them fairly, knowing that much of it will help pay for exorbitant legal fees. We should make an effort to support immigration reform knowing that immigrants themselves do not always feel comfortable speaking out or getting political given their status. And lastly, we should thank immigrants for loving this country so much they’re willing to put up with so much just to be here and contribute so much to it. I too, as a Canadian would like to say thank you, America and sorry! Sorry! Thank you, but sorry!
PS: if you’ve got any O-1-related questions, I’m always happy to help share my experience. I am not a lawyer, but I’m happy to recommend some folks who work specifically with artists. Feel free to send me a message.
Nada Alic is an LA-based editor, writer and content strategist with 9 years of professional experience. Currently, she's working on a collection of fiction. Previously, Nada was the Editorial Director for e-comm arts platform Society6. Before that, she was agency-side, managing editorial for Gap Inc. properties. She also built Etsy's first Canadian HQ, and has had work featured in VICE, Nasty Gal, Ephemera Mag, Time Out LA, Cool Hunting, and People of Print.
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine