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.

A strict visa that requires employees to be tied to their sponsors, the H-1B prohibits Braun from changing jobs or moving to another state without filing an amendment. And her salary is determined by a system of prevailing wages based on geographic area. But the visa does have its advantages.

"The beauty of an H-1B is it's valid for part-time work," Halpern says. Which leaves Braun time to work on her art.

Though Eliza could have filed for an H-1B, she opted for the O-1. After she finished Core, she flitted back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean on various visitor visas until she exhausted them.

Sculptor Joseph Havel, head of the Core program, has seen many good artists leave the country because of immigration limitations.
Deron Neblett
Sculptor Joseph Havel, head of the Core program, has seen many good artists leave the country because of immigration limitations.

"I understand why people just get jobs, and when I think if I should have done that, 'Nah,' I think. You should be able to come for the reason you were accepted in the first place, in the same situation as you were good enough to get into." She came on the merit of her art and wants to stay for the same reason.

Though Eliza has had more than a dozen shows in the last four years, some of them solo, she doesn't have that career-making show like the Whitney Biennial on her résumé. Not that the INS examiner reviewing her case would necessarily know what the Whitney is. The INS doesn't know if someone is actually a good artist, just whether they look good on paper.

"It's all very subjective," attorney Foster says. "I can present my case and win it and present an identical case and lose. There are certain examiners that would approve it because they take a more liberal view. But that examiner sitting in the next office may deny it because he takes a more technical view.

INS spokesperson Eyleen Schmidt says adjudicators have access to databases in case they have questions about museums, awards and galleries. Though the O-1 has high standards, the INS tries to make it fair by accepting a variety of evidence, she says.

"It can be difficult to get the O-1 visa. We do understand that not everyone is going to win the Nobel Prize, which is why you can submit -- and we do accept -- as evidence things like awards you've won, shows you've taken part in or had on your own, artwork that you've sold…We accept a lot of types of documentation that you can use to prove you're promising," she says.

Still, Eliza feels her case is a big gamble.

"It's really hit-or-miss," she says. "It could be something as small as they like the images of your work."

It happened almost overnight. As Shahzia Sikander finished her tenure at Core in spring 1997, she was included at both the Drawing Center in SoHo and the Whitney Biennial. Her career skyrocketed. To be sure, Sikander has always been career-minded. She had been sending work to the Drawing Center for years.

Critics marveled at Sikander's fragile drawings in vegetable dyes that depicted veiled women and swirling shapes in pastoral landscapes. They praised her fluid murals, which were delicate yet jarring. Sikander had been trained in the classical (and taxing) art of Persian miniature painting, and writers often referred to her work in terms of dichotomy: She used traditional forms with contemporary flair. East meets West. Folk art mixing with pop culture.

Although Sikander is as successful as Erlich, she has found herself in many unnerving situations because of immigration. In 1993 she came from Lahore, Pakistan, to the Rhode Island School of Design on an F-1 visa. She came to the Core program in 1995, but instead of taking a new student visa, she used her year of practical training for the first year of the residency.

For the second year, not quite sure what to do, she applied for both a green card and an F-1 visa. Most attorneys recommend obtaining an H-1B or O-1 visa before applying for a green card, but Sikander self-petitioned for a green card. She never heard again about the new student visa but received acknowledgement of the green card case. That was five years ago. The wait for green cards -- even in Houston, which has one of the most backlogged offices in the country -- usually runs less than four years.

Sikander applied for the "extraordinary ability" category, which sets lofty standards similar to those of the O-1 visa. She must prove her prominence by listing awards, sending in reviews, cataloging her financial stability, and including affidavits from colleagues and critics attesting to her renowned reputation.

There were problems from the beginning. Her bag had been stolen while she was in Rhode Island and her original passport was gone, complicating paperwork. When Sikander moved within Houston, the INS never sent mail to the new address even though she had filed numerous change of address forms with them. Four days before the Whitney Biennial opened, while Sikander was in New York putting up a wall installation, she learned that she had one day left for a fingerprinting appointment -- or her case would be dropped. The original letter never reached her. Panic-stricken, she bought a one-way ticket to Houston, arrived that night and waited in the notoriously long INS lines.

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