Immigrant Artists Deserve to be Free
Francisco Mendoza by Daniel J Vasquez
Photo: Daniel J Vasquez

Of all the time I have been in this country, this is the first year I am truly free.

My presence in the U.S. since I arrived in 2015, for an MFA in Dramatic Writing, has mostly been governed by the rules and limitations of whatever visa I’ve been under. Unlike other international students, I didn’t come to this country to absorb its knowledge and then apply it in a career back home, partly because I’m not even sure where “back home” is. I was born and raised in Argentina, but my family moved to Brazil when I was twelve — too old to fully assimilate but too young to cling to my roots. 

When I first visited New York, I felt I had found my place: a global hub where I wouldn’t have to feel like an outsider and could be whatever I wanted. I had heard about this place in countless books, movies, and TV shows throughout my childhood, and seeing it live made it even more irresistible; I had no doubt my life was supposed to happen here. What I did not know at the time was that America had no qualms about exporting its culture without any intention of honoring the beckoning light that shone through it. 

The first time I ever set foot in a U.S. consulate, to request a tourist visa, I was shocked at how rudely the rest of the applicants and I were treated. We had paid the (non-refundable) fees to be there, we had filled out the forms, we were planning to visit America to contribute to its economy and culture, yet we were still herded like cattle through countless lines, with no respect for our time or our needs, getting yelled at every time we missed even the smallest of directions. The U.S. is not afraid (or ashamed) to display and abuse its power. It can take up all the space it wants in other countries’ screens, shopping malls, political and economic agendas — but it will not tolerate us taking up even an inch of its own territory. I had to promise every visa agent that I did not intend to migrate, that I was only coming for a little while and then would return to my country. And yet, a couple of months after landing in New York, I felt sure here was my destiny. I gave a spiritual middle finger to the government. I had changed my mind and was not planning to leave. Sike!

This confounded my MFA teachers, who met my requests for advice on a career in the U.S. with a puzzled “but aren’t you going back?” stare. And, once I graduated, it confounded prospective employers, who did not know what to do with this recent MFA grad whose visa had only one year left. Known as Optical Practical Training (OPT), that final year of the student visa is supposed to allow students to work in their field as part of their education — a proposition that ignores that a) most writers don’t get a writing job right out of school, usually waiting for success as a barista or a waiter (something my visa explicitly did not allow, confining me to my industry and profession) and b) that Americans do not hire people with temporary visas for anything. It’s one of the legal forms of discrimination still left in this country, allowing employers to ask, “Will you now or in the future require sponsorship for employment?” It creates a frustrating catch-22 for immigrants: you need a job to get a visa, you need a visa to get a job. It’s no wonder that when I was finally hired, it was by a fellow immigrant, the only one willing to take a chance on me.

At the end of my OPT, I had two options: ask my employer to sponsor me, or go with the so-called “artists visa,” whose legal name is Alien of Extraordinary Abilities, a standard that neatly encapsulates this country’s approach to who’s allowed to stay. Being sponsored would be less onerous for me, but it would tie me to my employer, preventing me from pursuing my writing. And, more importantly, that visa is lottery-based, which means my employer and I could do everything right and I could still end up deported. I decided to go the “extraordinary” route, embarking on a journey in which everything I did had to result in press, awards, and other signifiers of success, lest I not accumulate enough evidence to convince the government I was worthy of staying. It was quite stressful and it curtailed my creativity; I could not risk creating anything but surefire successes. Plus, being “extraordinary” came at a price. I’ve spent over $30,000 on visas — money that in no way guaranteed approvals, just the best shot I could buy at staying in the country.

Eventually, my achievements afforded me the chance to petition for an Extraordinary Abilities green card, my first ever immigrant visa (in the U.S., any visa with an expiration date is considered “nonimmigrant”; the green card is a permanent residency). After eight years, I am finally free. There are no limitations on what kind of job I can take or for how long, and I can use any money I earn to invest in my future, not to pay the government for my continued presence. I’m still facing the same challenges as other early-career artists in a highly gate-kept industry ruled by scarcity, but for once, it feels like I’m on even footing with my peers. And while I feel incredibly blessed, I also feel guilty. I’ve triumphed in a system that has rejected and crushed so many others. While my determination played a part, so did my privilege; I’m lucky I had the education, the savings, and the emotional support to be able to endure. I can’t stop thinking about the ones who don’t have it and are denied their American dream.

So, last year, a group of friends and I co-founded the Immigrant Theatermakers Advocates initiative. We’ve all accumulated our fair amount of clout, and we saw a chance to use this toward giving our community a shot not just at surviving but thriving in the pursuit of our passion. Our immediate actions (creating a listserv for immigrants in theatre to share resources and ask for help; compiling a list of vetted lawyers who’ll give our members free consultations, saving them $300 to get much-needed first and second opinions) have all been community-facing, but we are just as invested in engaging institutions to dismantle xenophobic policies. Our industry has sadly replicated some of the barriers invented by the government, restricting opportunities to those with residency or citizenship privilege or creating extra hurdles that immigrants often have to navigate alone. We’re excited about the possibility that, where we received blank stares, the people who come after us will at least get a “check out the website for this group, maybe they have the answers.” We are discouraged by how much yelling we have to do to get Americans to care about this issue. We are hopeful that, eventually, it won’t take an immigrant being in a space for that space to be immigrant friendly.

So, consider this my plea to all Dramatists Guild members: join us in this fight. Advocate for theaters to work with immigrants on and off the stage. Write letters of recommendation or job offers for people putting together their visa cases. Don’t let immigrants be hit by any expenses that other artists don’t have to pay. It starts in college, where most places charge international students higher tuition, and follows us around everywhere (including the DG, where dues-paying members still have to fork over $150-$250 for a “no objection” letter for their visa application — a policy that, thankfully, I’m told is being revised). And for the love of everything that’s holy: do not deny employment to someone because their visa will expire at some point. Don’t force us to live in the future or be put in the position of having to pretend we can control it. In whatever way you can, help us regain what this system has taken from us: dignity and freedom.

Francisco Mendoza
Francisco Mendoza

is an Argentinian writer currently living in Brooklyn, NY after spending several years in Brazil. His writing spans theatre, prose, audio, and the screen, and he also works as a freelance journalist, teacher, and marketing consultant. He’s an advocate for immigrants in the entertainment industry and a co-founder of the Immigrant Theatermakers Adovcates Initiative. /