Oscars Highlight Immigration Challenges for International Entertainers
With Oscar Night approaching this Sunday, viewers will be looking at a diverse pool of nominees, including Michelle Yeoh, a celebrated Malaysian-born actress who, if she wins, will be the first Asian woman to receive a lead actress Oscar. In fact, 12 of the 20 acting nominees this year are, like Yeoh, foreign-born. Add to that an uptick in U.S. movies shot overseas and actors traveling abroad to star in international productions, and the math is clear: from Hollywood movie studios to independent filmmakers, immigration law is pivotal to the contemporary filmmaking process. In era of backlogged visa issuance, lengthy visa wait times due to less and understaffed consulates, and complex immigration laws, the U.S. entertainment industry faces costly obstacles while navigating this tricky, post-pandemic regulatory climate.
The most typical road to Hollywood for international entertainers is the O-1 visa which requires proving they have “extraordinary ability” through a record of distinguished achievement. Actors and creatives eligible for applying for U.S. permanent residence must either remain in the U.S. throughout the adjudication process, or apply for permanent resident status via an AOS (Adjustment of Status or Green Card), that negates having to return to their home country during processing. In the interim, entertainers must obtain an Advanced Parole travel document that permits them to return from travel outside of the U.S.
However, visa approval numbers, affected by processing restrictions during the pandemic and an immigrant visa ban during the Trump administration, haven’t rebounded substantially from their early FY 2020 nadir of just over 240,500 cases. In fact, post-pandemic visa issuance is still sluggish, backlogged by hundreds of thousands at the U.S. State Department.
In tandem, visa appointment wait times, another casualty of the recent pandemic due to its temporary shuttering of some U.S. consulates and embassies, continue to be lengthy. Prior to pandemic, actors and other entertainers could strategically opt to return to their home country and apply for expedited processing of an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate, but protracted consular wait times have all but eliminated that strategy. Consular wait times, in fact, are one of the biggest challenges for movie studios and other corporations seeking international talent today. We polled several of our own immigration stakeholders, of all sizes, and 9 out of 10 equally reported consular processing times as their number one hurdle.
And although historically it has been easier for big Hollywood studios to request and expedite visas, Advanced Parole, and Adjustment of Status/Green Card appointments for their actors and other creative talent, approval of either the request or the visa of itself is not guaranteed. Ditto for the smaller, boutique or independent studios and productions, for whom such wait times and non-issuance of visas could actually mean the difference between keeping the doors open or being able to timely pay their actors, other creatives, and staff.
Some actors and other entertainers find it challenging to even qualify for the ever-changing and murky regulatory categories that would enable them to pursue their livelihoods. For example, issuance of O-1 visas are generally weighted toward superstars in the film industry—those actors who have been substantially featured in film, tv, and more. That regulatory reality makes it difficult for aspiring international actors and other artists to reasonably consider using O-1 for entrance to the U.S. and meaningful work at the beginning of their career.
Large Hollywood studios also, unlike small or independent studios, can of course typically afford to pay for all of the above, which include legal fees and USCIS processing fees—however, the recently proposed increases in USCIS fees will substantially increase those costs and ultimately affect any company’s bottom line.
The upcoming Oscars and other entertainment award ceremonies underscore that the business of arts and entertainment is increasingly global. Filmmaking and its continued success are clearly linked to immigration processes. The U.S. should be removing immigration barriers that slow the progress of the arts and entertainment industry, an ever-lucrative sector. In addition to staffing U.S. consulates, the U.S. should review and clarify visa categories that increasingly cause studios and entertainment talent delay and address the sizeable visa backlog that is still plaguing our arts and entertainment field of dreams in FY 2023.
Gabriel Castro is a Senior Associate with BAL and leads the firm’s Sports and Entertainment Immigration Practice in Los Angeles. An experienced attorney who has worked in multiple aspects of immigration law, including business, family, and removal defense, Gabriel offers his clients both skilled legal advice and exceptional service. Gabriel works with companies of all sizes to help retain artists, entertainers, athletes, coaches, and supporting staff through both nonimmigrant and immigrant visa petitions.