How Artists With Extraordinary Ability Can Self-Petition for a U.S. Green Card (With No Job Offer)

An artist of high achievement might be able to “self-petition” based on talent and achievement as a “Priority Worker” under the “extraordinary ability” immigrant visa category (“EB-1”).

By , Attorney

Let's say you are a successful artist, and you believe a great professional career might await you in the United States. However, you do not have a job offer there, which is the usual requirement for an employment-based visa or green card.

Don't give up just yet: You might, depending on your level of achievement and recognition, have other options to seek U.S. permanent residence (a green card). Specifically, you might be able to "self-petition" based on your talent and achievement as a "Priority Worker," under what's called the "extraordinary ability" immigrant visa category ("EB-1").

The U.S. created the EB-1 immigrant visa in order to reward talent and ability. Although many of the people who use this visa category are in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the EB-1 category also specifically applies to professionals in the arts. Whether your skills lie in fine art, applied art, or the performing arts, this category might be worth looking into.

The regulation that defines the priority worker visa category may be found at 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(h).

Let's look at the requirements for the EB-1 category as they pertain to artists, and consider whether and how this category might work for you. Also remember that many personal factors can also affect visa eligibility.

Basic Eligibility Requirements for EB-1 Priority Workers of Extraordinary Ability

To qualify for a visa under the extraordinary ability category as an artist, you must be at the very top of your field, meaning:

  • you've received sustained recognition at the international or national level, and
  • others in your field recognize you for your artistic achievements.

When it comes time to apply, you'll need to prove your professional standing: either through one major, international award, or a combination of other significant achievements (summarized below). Examples of a major international award might be a Grammy for music, or an Academy Award for cinematic achievement.

You'll notice that some of the EB-1 criteria appear tailored to researchers and academics. With a bit of skillful argument, however, you might be able to explain how a particular artistic achievement of yours fulfills the requirement in question.

What Combination of Achievements Might Show Extraordinary Ability in the Arts

If you are choosing to aggregate achievements, your application for an EB-1 visa or status will need to show at least three of the following, within your field:

  • awards for excellence (national or international)
  • association membership that required outstanding achievement, as judged by experts
  • publication about your work in major media (such as a biographical piece about you and your career)
  • service as a judge of others in your field or an allied field (such as by serving on a review panel)
  • original contributions of major significance (such as novel or groundbreaking works that have been recognized by experts in your field)
  • articles you authored in professional or other major media
  • evidence of your work being displayed at exhibits or showcases
  • leading or critical roles in distinguished organizations
  • high salary or pay for your work relative to others, and
  • commercial success in performing arts (for example, box office record, or record sales).

Showing that you meet the minimum requirements above is only the first step. You will ultimately need to persuade the U.S. government reviewer that, overall, your achievements place you at the very top of your artistic field.

Strategies for Artists to Match Criteria That Seem Meant for Scientists

Artists often face an additional hurdle: The EB-1 eligibility criteria (for example, authorship of articles) are more easily applied to academic researchers in science than to artists, especially if you specialize in an applied art (such as brand design or visual campaigns for a new product or service). To overcome this, consider:

  1. explaining why a particular standard does not apply to your field
  2. noting the achievement that is comparable to the standard, and
  3. explaining why your achievement is comparable to the standard.

Let's say, for example, that your collection of original paintings was published in a well-known anthology for artists who employ a unique style, and you want to submit this as a comparable achievement to having authored scholarly articles in media. You could show how the creation of paintings printed in a professional anthology serves the same purpose as authoring articles: for example, to share a novel application of a known style or methodology with academic peers in order to help advance a unique theory or style. This approach helps make sure you don't omit meaningful professional accomplishments.

If you have enlisted the help of an attorney (which would be an excellent idea), be prepared to work closely to help explain your achievements and their significance, especially when those achievements don't seem to neatly fall into the standard categories.

Showcasing and Explaining Your Achievements in Art

When it comes time to petition for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) based on your extraordinary ability, you will have to submit some basic government forms as well as supporting documents proving your eligibility. Additionally, a cover letter and summary can help organize and explain the documents you will be including, and explain their significance.

Even if an attorney will be helping you, it's worth starting to gather supporting documents now, to show that you are as talented as you claim to be. The following tips might help you organize:

  • Gather objective evidence of your achievements. Objective evidence means from a credible source, rather than being your word alone. Be ready, for example, with a copy of the signed letter that informed you of an award for artistic excellence, and include photos from the ceremony or reception instead of just noting the award in your portfolio or artist's profile.
  • Show the significance of your awards. Not all awards are created equally. An award from a recognized group of expert orchestral performers carries more weight than an award from peers at your conservatory. Moreover, the significance of an award might not be obvious to reviewers from its name alone. You'll want to explain what it took to get this award. Include qualifying criteria and cite the number of people who actually receive the award.
  • Show your continued success. The EB-1 category is intended for artists who "sustain" their acclaim. Thus, you will need to show more than a few seconds of fame. Highlight your achievements over the course of your career (before, during, and after professional study or training). This should show your likelihood of future success and your ability to continue making major artistic contributions.
  • Provide background information on associations and organizations that honored you. Aside from a Grammy or Academy Award, many industry-specific honors that you and your professional peers take for granted might be unheard of by otherwise informed people outside your field. Do not hesitate to include objective background information on the history, purpose, and significance of the organizations that granted you an award or allowed you to join as a member.
  • Line up expert opinions. If you do not widely commercialize your works, you might not be able to cite sales or other commercial achievements as evidence of ability. However, if experts in your field recognize your achievements, their opinion and letters of recommendation can substitute for such evidence. Ask a wide variety of people to discuss your achievements and to preface their letters with information on their background, education, and credentials.
  • Consider including rich and new media. If your field of art relies on new models for promoting, showcasing, and selling content, do not hesitate to cite those. For example, many organizations digitally showcase artists and works of art. If you were featured by a major website for your work or career, consider including a screen shot of the website showing the URL and date retrieved. Similarly, if you have sold your work online, you might include a screenshot of your online ranking or sales record.

The above are just some possible approaches to proving your eligibility for an EB-1 visa, and only some might be relevant to you. An attorney and professional peers can help you select the most complete and persuasive list of documents.

Overview of Application Process to Become a U.S. Immigrant (Permanent Resident)

This article does not supply a complete guide to the application process, but gives a brief preview. You would start by your submitting what's called a "visa petition" to USCIS on Form I-140.

What happens next depends on where you are living. If you are already in the United States legally as a nonimmigrant (such as on an H-1B or O-1 visa), you would adjust your status after USCIS approves your immigrant visa petition and your visa category has become current. To learn more, read Applying for a Green Card.

If you are abroad, you would need to go through consular processing after USCIS has approved your visa petition. See Consular Processing Procedures.

The U.S. government may consider not only your eligibility under the EB-1 visa category, but your current or past immigrant status, as well as your personal background, to decide whether you are admissible to the U.S. at all.

While your knowledge of the basics and your cooperation in compiling and organizing the documents can be helpful, the application process demands a great deal of paperwork preparation and attention to detail. An attorney is in the best position to help you persuade the U.S. government that you are at the very top of your field and to make sure that other factors will not affect your options.

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