Immigrating to the United States is not an easy process, and it just keeps getting harder. Among the many visas offered by the USCIS the one that most artists choose to apply for is the O-1B, also known as “The Artist Visa”. I was living in the U.S. for four years studying Jazz Performance in New York, before submitting my first O-1B application and was facing the ultimate question – should I use a lawyer, or do it myself? This is not an easy question to answer and every case is different, but for me it made more sense to do it myself.
How To Know If You’re Eligible for A Visa?
Unfortunately, USCIS isn’t being so clear about who is eligible to get one, and there is quite a lot of gray area. I’ve met talented successful artists who got denied, and ones with very few achievements to show for who got approval within 3 weeks. What’s even worse is that you’re not showcasing your work or your talent, but people’s reactions to it. In other words, it’s what your colleagues say about your art, how successful your career has been because of your art, and how potentially successful you’ll be if you move to the U.S. that the USCIS is interested in.
This was the first factor that made me realize how different this “animal” is than any other audition/job application I’ve submitted, and how important it is to not treat it as such. My visa was almost 300 pages long, and the agent reviewing my case hadn’t listened to a single note I played on the piano before approving my application.
What’s even more mind-blowing is that even though you will most likely be doing all the work when submitting the application (and paying all the fees of course), this isn’t your application! The visa is technically submitted by your sponsor, who’s making a case to the USCIS to allow you to come here and work for him. So basically, you are building an entire application on your sponsor’s behalf, and trying to prove how your talent will “change American culture as we know it”.
Why Not Use a Lawyer
So after studying in the U.S. for four years and reaching a few milestones in my career, I decided to apply for my first Visa. Every one of my friends used a lawyer to get theirs, and none of them had anything good to say about their experience. The most common criticism was that lawyers are flooded with clients, so they don’t take your case too personally. For a lawyer, a 95% success rate is an amazing statistic for his firm. However, for the five people out of a hundred that didn’t get approved and were forced to go back to their countries, or try to find a different way to enter the U.S., their lives were hit with a major blow.
Another criticism was that they still had to do all the work; finding all the supporting materials, collecting recommendation letters, reaching out to potential employers to receive deal memos, everything. The lawyer would usually look at the case, tell them whether they have a strong one or not or if something was missing, and just send it back to them.
One of my friends who used a lawyer was also my mentor and taught me all I needed to know about applying by myself. He directed me to the right forums, compared his application to mine, and showed me all the mistakes his lawyer made with his application (among them misspelling his name). Before “coaching” me on the process he made me take the oath I now ask anyone I help with this as well: “I will not charge anyone who asks for help with his visa application.”
That was the turning point for me to decide to do it Lawyerless (is that a word?). It is already extremely difficult for immigrants to come here, to integrate here, and to extend their stay. Those who went the same route as me and spent four years of their lives as students, creating friendships, networking, and imagining their lives here, will not put a price on their ability to stay here. Unfortunately, that makes amounts like $3,000, $5,000 and even $10,000 a reasonable fee to pay a lawyer to file your case for you. If I can learn how to file it alone, succeed in it, and spread the word, maybe future immigrant artists can begin their professional life here without a dent equivalent to six months of rent.
I Was in Control
Starting the application was extremely tedious, and at times very overwhelming. Which of the six criterias I am able to prove? Who should sponsor my visa? Who to ask for recommendation letters? What color scheme should I use to organize all the flyers I’ve collected? How many trees should I plant to make up for all the paper I’ve wasted? etc. But once I got into the flow it actually became a fun way to look back at my career thus far and feel proud of my achievements. Once I got over the fact that the recommendation letters do everything but equate you to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, I watched my visa starting to take shape, and it started to look good! Most importantly, I was in control of every single word written on my visa. I was able to recite almost every deal memo I signed, every article I quoted, every recommendation letter I received. I decided which article goes where what color each part of the itinerary was, the template of my cover letter, everything. It was my career and my future on the line, who could prove how successful it was better than me?
When Should You Use A Lawyer?
Just to be clear, I have nothing personal against lawyers and think that in many cases lawyers can be very helpful. I’m sure there are great lawyers out there who care about their clients and take their applications very seriously. I personally would always suggest starting the process without one. If it still feels overwhelming, then a lawyer is an excellent alternative.
Some lawyers charge hourly rather than a flat fee and are available for consultation. Even booking a $200/hr lawyer for four hours to review your case is much cheaper than the ongoing rate.
Most importantly, not all visa applications go smoothly. Some will come back with the dreaded “Request for Evidence”, also known as RFE. If that is the case and the RFE you receive seems too complicated to undertake, a lawyer would be a great person to ask for advice.
There isn’t really a right or wrong choice when it comes to how you wish to apply for your Visa. I am just hoping this will inspire you to examine all your options before deciding what’s best for you, and want you to know that while it might sound intimidating to submit without a lawyer, it is definitely feasible and just might be worth it. Who knows, you might become the next O-1B Guru in your friend circle and help others with their applications! Maybe you can even bend the oath a little bit and have them buy you a drink in return for your help. Trust me, by the time you submit the application, you will definitely need one!
Did you apply for a visa recently? Tell us about your experience!