Tick Tock, Your Time Is Up

Foreign students at the Glassell School of Art get a stipend, studio space and three years to make it really big. They've had a huge impact on Houston's art scene. But if the INS isn't impressed, they've got to go.

Charles Foster, a Houston attorney who counts the ballet, symphony and opera among his clients, says if the petitioner is a prominent artistic institution, one letter from that institution usually does the trick. Artists, who often don't have the backing of a large institution, need more.

Erlich gathered 17 letters of recommendation from artists, curators and critics and asked a New York gallery to sponsor him. While he didn't have to show the exact amount of money he made, he turned in a copy of his contract with the gallery. He also photocopied reviews of his work from major publications.

He popped these in the mail with a $110 fee, and within a month he received an O-1 visa, good for three years and renewable for one-year increments indefinitely. Next, he wants to become a permanent resident. An artist doesn't have many resources in countries like Argentina, he says, where the economy is so bad that people with degrees drive taxicabs.

Pakistani native Shahzia Sikander has lived in America for eight years, finding critical acclaim in the art world and problem after problem with the INS.
Pakistani native Shahzia Sikander has lived in America for eight years, finding critical acclaim in the art world and problem after problem with the INS.

"Just the fact that a visa exists for an artist to apply for is something very valuable," Erlich says. "You know, if you go to Argentina and say, 'I'm an artist. Can I have a visa?' people will laugh at you because there's not a consideration for things that are not like major businesses or careers that are of very ultimate use for the country. Being an artist, you're not saving lives, and you're not getting oil for the country or things like that."

While Erlich received his O-1 visa painlessly, most foreign artists find it an unrealistic goal to achieve that much success in just three years. Other options include marrying an American citizen or trying for an H-1B specialty worker visa.

"I can see why they want proof that you're an artist, or else it could be a scam and anyone could say, 'I'm an artist,' " says Fuchs, who creates wallpaperlike paintings and wall installations. "The ironic thing is that they want you to be making money off your art."

Three weeks after Fuchs (who is half British and half German) arrived in Houston in 1996, she met Bill Davenport at a party thrown by another Core artist. They hit it off instantly. After completing the program in 1998, Fuchs married Davenport at the Aurora Picture Show. They held their reception at No tsu oH, the grimy downtown coffee shop-cum-performance space that is itself an ongoing work of art.

"I'm not sure we're the marrying type. But Bill is the man I want to be with, and I am the woman he wants to be with, and we had to do something about the visa. So the most straightforward way of dealing with it was marriage," says Fuchs, who is due to have a baby any day now.

At the end of 1998, the couple began tackling the paperwork for a green card (which grants permanent residency) without a lawyer, which proved nerve-racking for Fuchs. Instructions were unclear, she says, and forms often bounced back. Fuchs had to obtain police reports from Germany, get them notarized by an official, and return to London for an interview and physical at the consulate's office. She received her green card in about a year.

"The whole thing was kind of scary. I don't understand it all, even after going through the whole thing…I'd get some form back from the INS and want to burst into tears."

Not everyone is lucky enough to get married or famous in a short time. But even obtaining an H-1B visa requires some luck for an artist. The visas, good for two three-year periods, are usually granted to skilled foreigners to fill occupational shortages. Nurses and high-tech computer workers come over on H-1Bs.

When sculptor Mailena Braun finished her residency at Core in 1999, she moved to New York to find a job.

"The thing I kept coming up against was the arts organizations were interested in hiring me, but they weren't prepared to go through the visa process, partly because it's a risk," she says. "You don't know if the visa will be granted or not. And you have to wait several months to find out. Most people, if they advertise a job, they want to have the position filled as soon as possible."

Unlike with O-1 visas, Congress caps the number of H-1Bs that can be granted every year. Sponsors also must file with the Department of Labor and prove that there's not a single willing and able U.S. worker who can do the job. On top of the $110 filing fee, the employer must pay a $1,000 fee, which was instituted more than a year ago to fund computer training for Americans. The INS also recently introduced another $1,000 fee for expedited service.

"As you are aware, the salary in the arts is not very high," says Braun's attorney Adrian Halpern, who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "On top of that they have to pay this onerous fee." Some museums and arts organizations just can't afford it, he says.

After several rejections, Braun finally found a willing sponsor in the Museum of Modern Art, which has an international program. Braun speaks four languages. But she waited six months for visa approval, a financially difficult time because she was not authorized to work.

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