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By Pamela Chan
June 9, 2016
Credit : Flickr user Gnaphron.

Imagine America without Rihanna concerts or foreign films; without sporting competitions or some of Wolfgang Puck’s finest culinary creations. What would that look like?

It’s certainly hard to imagine. Culturally-enriching people, events, and art have not only diversified our country, but have allowed for years of prosperity and economic growth. From Hollywood to the Big Apple and all the way back to the Silicon Valley, the United States has become a second home to some extraordinarily talented immigrants — think Daniel Day Lewis and Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar de la Renta and Gloria Estefan.

Whether it is movies or music, visual arts or digital technology, the U.S. has long prided itself on being the entertainment capital of the world. Hollywood been known to introduce some of the greatest actors, writers, directors, and producers, while the San Francisco Bay area remains a prime spot for innovation, imagination, and bright new ideas that continue to push America to the top.

As we celebrate the accomplishments of our favorite artists and innovators, the immigration debate rages on. There has been support for a wall along the U.S./Mexico border and a series of raids on undocumented immigrants. There is also fierce debate about the “merits and necessity of foreign labor in the domestic marketplace from the San Joaquin Valley’s lettuce fields to Silicon Valley’s coding cubicles,” as Gary Baum, senior writer at the Hollywood Reporter, puts it in a new article titled “How Hollywood Plays Immigration Game to Get Shortcuts for Stars.”

Baum’s piece highlights a unique visa process for entertainers called the O-1B visa program, which is being compared to a “fast past” for the immigration process. “It’s gold,” says attorney Alan Klein towards the end of the article, which attributes the growth of this “economically-oriented” program partly to the various manifestations of Hollywood’s globalization, as well as a newfound understanding by industry leaders about the once-little-known program.

Within the entertainment industry alone, the program has grown within the past four years from about 2,000 applications a year to 3,000, reports the Hollywood Reporter, and is designated for “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement” to work freely in the U.S, or as Baum notes, an “obscure and exclusive program turbocharged in efficiency and efficacy compared to other far less glittery U.S. Department of Homeland Security visas due to its typically big-ticket cost.”

Though America itself is full of talented individuals, some of the public’s favorite filmmakers and artists hail from abroad, everywhere from Argentina to Australia, from Spain to China. Many American production companies go abroad to create, promote, and sell their films to further allow the U.S. to retain the “best and the brightest.”

“We’re in an age where so many productions are leaving the U.S. and going to Canada or going abroad to shoot things — and so the O1 is what helps America stay competitive. These people are contributing to a multi-billion-dollar industry,” says Kate Raynor, an Los Angeles-based immigration attorney. “If we want to be competitive, if we want to continue to be the best, we have to allow these people into the country, to allow a visa that lets the best of the best into the country. That’s why Congress made that visa in the first place. They know you want the best and the brightest in your country whether they’re curing disease or making movies or painting paintings or competing in athletics, whatever it is.”

In the world of arts and entertainment at least, this sort of cross-border fluidity provided by the O1-B visa has been mutually beneficial for artists, studios, fans, and consumers alike. It has deepened our appreciation for foreign art and has enhanced on our ability for international cultural exchange. Despite some critique of the program, it isn’t a “sort of platinum service versus those who have nothing and are fleeing persecution and in some cases have to wait years,” says Jennifer Quigley, a strategist with Human Rights First, a Washington-based advocacy group for international refugees fleeing political and religious violence to America.

The O1 visa is a special case, Raynor says, that is “only done when you do have a multi-million-dollar project on the line that’s being held up because of visa… There has to be a mechanism to solve something like that, so it’s not at all about people ‘cutting in front of the lines’ or ‘going to the politicians’ or taking the easy way out.”

As someone who represents CBS Television Studios, as well as various management companies, agencies, and individuals seeking support, Raynor has seen “day in and day out the difference O1 visas make.” Often times, it can mean the “difference between whether a $500 million movie gets set to be made in America or elsewhere in another country,” she says.

Like it or not, Justin Bieber concerts and Hugh Jackman movies bring in billions of dollars and go on to create millions of jobs in the United States and Americans continue to avidly use immigrant-helmed inventions such as Google and eBay, and to chow down on goodies we wouldn’t otherwise have like Chobani Greek Yogurt and Kraft Mac n’ Cheese. Foreign talent no doubt contributes to the U.S. economy. “So are we not going to have any Rihanna or Justin Bieber concerts? Are we not going to have foreign actors perform in films? Because if we don’t have these visas, that may very well be the case, and that’s not what people want,” Raynor says.

It’s difficult to think of a world without the beauty, grace, and wonder that’s often brought to us by Hollywood. But take a peek at the credits rolling by during your next stop at the movies, or even just at your iTunes. A plethora of famous fan-friendly names have managed to build upon Oscar- or Grammy-worthy careers, all while having to undergo a rigorous visa application process in order to actually work in the U.S. The O1 visa is one way Hollywood has managed to stay on top, despite the chaos of current immigration policies.

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