A young science journalist went recently to a US Consulate in Germany to finalize her visa to work in America. The process seemed to include an unreasonably high requirement: “Why don’t you have a Pulitzer Prize?” the consular officer asked. “Can you explain to me why you think you’re qualified for the O-1 without one?” The journalist was applying for an O-1B visa—the documentation required of those entering the US to do creative work, establishing proof of “extraordinary ability.” The officer said a Nobel would suffice, too.
The consular officer Googled the journalist and scoffed at the search results. Her work was “ordinary” and “average,” he said. When he saw from her paperwork that she made about $2,000 a month, he told her that “a truly famous journalist would make much more.”
“The laws for O-1’s are the same as ever, but the processing has changed significantly under the Trump Administration,” Rakhel Milstein, the journalist’s lawyer, who has 15 years of experience, says. Since April 2017, when Trump issued his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, immigration officials have made what seem like small changes to policy that add up to large obstacles for foreign journalists aiming to work for US outlets. In May 2017, for instance, US Citizenship and Immigration Services added a questionnaire for O-1 applicants—optional, but encouraged—that includes social media, email, and phone record audits going back 5 years, plus disclosure of all travel, addresses, and employment history over the past 15 years. The visas have always been hard to get, but lately, Mistein says, as the application process has become less predictable, there has been a 6 percent drop in approvals for her clients and more difficulty at consulates. The agency sometimes asks for charts showing where a journalist ranks in the hierarchy of their company. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Milstein says. (USCIS was unable to provide data on the percentage of petitions they approve.)
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Murat Can Bilgincan, a journalist from Istanbul, has a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism, where he received a full scholarship. He is also the recipient of a Davis Projects for Peace grant. He used the grant to make a documentary, A Report Card for Democracy, on political polarization in Turkey. He has produced documentaries and worked as an on-air reporter for CNN Turk. USCIS approved Bilgincan’s O-1B petition in October 2017, and a month later, his interview at the US Consulate in Istanbul went smoothly. Bilgincan received a form saying he would receive his visa the next week. Instead, he received an empty passport and the new supplemental questionnaire. Nine months later, he is still waiting for his O-1.
“I’ve been marooned here ever since,” Bilgincan says from Istanbul. While he waits, he freelances for corporate clients through Mzungu Media, his independent production company. “America has the First Amendment,” he says. “It’s as trustworthy as the media industry gets in the world.”
Applicants who started the process even a few months later than Bilgincan did face more than just silence. Other immigration lawyers confirm to CJR that their clients are also experiencing the outright hostility that the German journalist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing permission to stay in the US or diminishing her ability to renew her visa in the future, encountered. She used savings to cover the cost—thousands of dollars, including a $460 processing fee—to Milstein. When the consular officer insulted her work, the German journalist recalls, “I felt like a complete fraud. I realized I had better chances if I just let him humiliate me, but it made me feel so talentless.” The consular officer was surprised her petition had been approved, he said. He would have to reconsider.
According to O-1 guidelines, Milstein says, journalists only have a chance of satisfying four of six possible criteria for admission to the US. They include having a “leading or critical role” in either a project—think an issue of a magazine, a similar role in an organization or publication, significant recognition via testimonials from experts in the field, and national or international recognition of published work, usually awards. The remaining two categories, high salary and commercial success, demonstrable through ratings or box office success, lie outside the parameters of most careers in journalism. Requests for further evidence—a dreaded part of the process in which an applicant must pay more fees and produce more references, guarantees of employment, and evidence of high-quality published work for the benefit of USCIS screeners—have expanded under Trump, Milstein says. USCIS used to send back 5 to 10 percent of Milstein’s cases with RFE orders, but in the recent months, around half of the case files did not pass initial review.
Bilgincan says the consulate’s responses to his emails are “generic, polite, they don’t mean anything.” His application is “still in administrative review,” emails say, or “undergoing routine administrative processing.” In late August,Bilgincan wrote to the officer assigned to his case that he had lost valuable business opportunities and, without some concrete information on his visa status, would have no choice but to sue the State Department. The officer replied, “Please do not email, call, or fax the Consulate with inquiries about your case.”
Bilgincan has so far spent $2850 on visa expenses. “I never had high hopes for becoming rich in journalism,” he says. “But in exchange for that, you want to be able to pursue your passion.”
The German journalist ultimately succeeded in gaining worker rights in the US. On the day she had a lease renewal due at her American apartment, in Brooklyn, an O-1B arrived at her parents’ house. “I need to be in the States right now,” she says. “But I wouldn’t go through this again under the same administration.”