Inside law: What does “extraordinary” really mean to US immigration?
Andrea Szew is the founder of Los Angeles law firm Szew Law Group, which has specialised in US immigration for the entertainment industry for over 15 years.
One type of US work visa that is heavily sought after in the entertainment industry is the O visa, issued to individuals who are extraordinary in their field. It is not a visa just for actors or actresses, but for anyone at the top of their field, including directors, cinematographers, costume designers, or producers, to name a few.
Extraordinary according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is not necessarily what you would normally think. USCIS looks for individuals whose skills are significantly or substantially above those ordinarily encountered in their field of work. This is determined based on the applicant’s presentation of evidence. Therefore, to be considered extraordinary and be granted an O visa, applicants must provide documented proof they meet at least three of the listed criteria in USCIS’s regulations OR they must have won an award that is internationally recognized (e.g. Oscar, AACTA Award, BAFTA, etc).
Today it is imperative for those who apply for this type of visa to have a solid understanding of what will qualify them as “extraordinary”. These petitions are being scrutinised more closely than ever before. Be aware that, even though there are clear criteria, there is a very high level of subjectivity that goes into the officer’s final determination. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that the petition is organised and thorough, including substantial and relevant support for each criterion the applicant claims to satisfy.
The following are tips and pointers on a few of the criteria commonly used by applicants to prove extraordinary ability:
Recognition for achievements in the media
This criterion is one that is easier to satisfy for some in the industry and harder for others. Many individuals within the industry, like certain producers, do not receive much credit in the media, but still play critical and lead roles. These behind-the-scenes individuals can still be considered extraordinary, but because they have little or no media about themselves anywhere, it’s better to leave this criterion to the people in front of the camera. There are plenty of other criteria that can be met without worrying about this one.
Lead, critical, or starring role for distinguished organisations
The word “organisation” changes depending on the field that is the focus of the petition. In the entertainment industry, more specifically in motion picture and television, production companies are often used in this criterion. For example, if an applicant has worked in a lead or critical role on multiple projects that were produced by a company that has a significant reputation in the industry, this criterion is a good one to focus on. The evidence to support this usually comes in the form of letters from the production companies discussing in detail projects, the success of the projects to the company, and how the applicant’s role contributed significantly to the company’s success. Since these letters are the key evidence to satisfy this criterion, it is critical that they are written by someone significant in the company and submitted with sufficient evidence of the company’s importance in the industry.
Experts in the industry believe the applicant is extraordinary.
This criterion is not met based on the number of letters submitted. It is better to have quality over quantity when it comes to presenting letters from experts. Research carefully the individuals who will write letters on the applicant’s behalf and make sure they are truly exceptional. Also, it is always a good idea to include documentation, media, and other support about the person writing the letter to be sure that the officer understands the value of the letter and who has signed it. Never assume that an officer knows the person who signed the letter. I learned that lesson years ago when an officer didn’t even know who Al Pacino was!
Finally, it is important to remember the petition is not just about checking the box on three criteria, but demonstrating to USCIS that the applicant is someone worthy of attention. The evidence presented should lend itself to creating a story and painting a picture of the applicant’s accomplishments, so the officer reviewing the case can clearly see and understand how truly extraordinary and deserving of the visa the applicant actually is.
For a full listing of criteria for the O visa visit: https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-workers/o-1-visa-individuals-extraordinary-ability-or-achievement
The Szew Law Group is based in Los Angeles and consults internationally on immigration to the USA. www.szewlaw.com.
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #177 June-July.