Houston Matters

Immigration Policies Affect The Houston Arts Community In Unique Ways

Attorney Kathryn Karam explains the unique hurdles performers, artists, and athletes have to clear to come perform in the United States.


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On Wednesday, President Trump announced new restrictions on travelers from most parts of Europe in order to slow spread of the coronavirus and the economic downfall associated with it. But, before that, it was already pretty challenging for people to obtain visas to come to the United States and work — and that includes an area of the economy that’s about more than just dollar signs: the arts.

In the arts world, whether some artists are allowed to come here to perform — and under what circumstances — affects not just their lives and the bottom line of venues that want to hire them, but it also affects the cultural breadth of Greater Houston.

Immigration attorney Kathryn Karam assists performers, artists, and athletes who are trying to navigate this complicated system to come perform here. On Thursday, she told Houston Matters producer Brenda Ruiz the red tape can cause Greater Houston to miss out on a lot of things.

“We can miss out on cultural activities and arts and music,” Karam said. “We can miss out on all kinds of things depending on how difficult it can be for people to get here.”

Attorney Kathryn Karam assists performers, artists, and athletes navigating the U.S. immigration system.

How It Works

The U.S. immigration system has several very specific types of temporary visas for work or performance purposes, Karam said.

“A person has to fit themselves into one of those successfully or they wont get authorization to come here and do what they’re seeking to do,” she said.

It’s more complicated than just demonstrating what that person brings to the table artistically.

“It’s a matter of, ‘Which one am I going to qualify for?’ or ‘Which is the closest thing?’ and then successfully convincing someone that you qualify,” she said.

There are what are referred to as “O” and “P” visas that are given to artists, performers, athletes, and people who have exceptional or extraordinary ability in their fields. Those fields range from business to science to the arts. Karam says it’s important for an artist to make sure they’re applying for the right one for their situation.

Musicians hoping to tour in the United States often face unique challenges applying for visas.

Unusual Employment Situations

Some visa types require an employer to sponsor an applicant by offering them a long-term position. However, that situation is complicated for many performers. For example, a musician coming here on tour would have numerous gigs in numerous cities. That means many different employers, essentially. Karam says that can often complicate the visa approval process, and it helps to find one person or entity to sponsor them.

“Sometimes, if somebody has a great career in their home country and people want them to come here and do something, sometimes it’s hard just for them to find that person to make that connection so that they have that U.S. entity or person that’s signing off and serving as the petitioner in their case,” she said.

But, even if they get that, the immigration service might still respond by asking for more evidence proving the person qualifies — that, for example, a musician truly provides something significant culturally.

Recent Complications

The Trump administration recently implemented its public charge rule. That means a lot of green card applicants have to overcome an added hurdle and show that they wont become a “public charge” once they’re here, meaning they wont become dependent on government benefits and can support themselves.

Karam says that, even with all those hurdles cleared, a performer can still be refused entry at an airport for various reasons. And that has included famous actors or musicians over the years.

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Michael Hagerty

Michael Hagerty

Senior Producer, Houston Matters

Michael Hagerty is the senior producer for Houston Matters. He's spent more than 20 years in public radio and television and dabbled in minor league baseball, spending four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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