Dancing with Uncle Sam and the Art of Working in America

Mar 6, 2018

Eileen Frazer, from Panama, and Oscar Fernandez, from Spain, are two of the four foreign workers currently employed with Ballet Memphis. Every year, they must resubmit copious documents to keep working in this country, a process paid for by their employer.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

As the debate over immigration reform continues, foreign-born workers and the companies that employ them face increasing challenges. Of the 70,000 immigrants living in the Memphis metro area, many are here because of unique skills, ranging from specialized medical knowledge to hard-to-find athletic or artistic abilities.

Ballet Memphis is a rare arts nonprofit that has foreign workers regularly on staff – four of them currently. Bringing them here isn’t easy, and keeping them means expensive fees and reams of paperwork.

Eileen Frazer, a dancer from Panama, explains why the company accepts the occasional foreign employee.

“In this company in particular, we’re not cookie-cutters,” she says, referring to the tendency for some dance companies to hire lookalikes.

“It’s moreso about you and what you bring and I think if they are attracted enough to that and that aspect, then they are willing to do the work for you,” she says.

Managing director Philip West agrees that while the hiring criteria is largely artistic, it’s also part of the mission to have international representation. That mission comes with certain expenses: the legal fees alone cost from two to four thousand dollars per dancer per year. The company could actually save money by sticking with Americans.

West says that the artistic staff typically sees a dancer they like at auditions in New York or San Francisco and then, only later, finds out that the performer is a foreign citizen.

“There are all sorts of things that you don’t realize that people walk into when you bring someone across the border,” West says.

Many of those things require a lawyer.

The dance company's immigration attorney, Elissa Taub with Siskind Susser PC, says the process is largely bureaucratic, but fraught with complicated documentation and cautious steps. Having a job lined up first is essential. Then a worker applies for a very specific type of visa.

“I call it the immigration alphabet soup,” Taub says. “Everywhere from A to U, there’s a visa that goes along with that letter.”

An H1B visa, for example, might be used for business leaders or healthcare specialists.

An O1 is for someone with extraordinary ability in his or her field of expertise, say a star basketball player.

A P1 is for athletes and entertainers with jobs already lined up at specific companies or venues. This is the typical route for ballet dancers.

Getting any of these visas usually requires a lawyer to navigate the background checks, letters of recommendation and hefty legal briefs that Taub says delve into the applicant’s background and qualifications with intricate detail.

The petitions are reviewed by random immigration employees who may or may not have knowledge about the occupation being filled. If approved, a dancer on a P1 visa gets one year of employment. Then the process repeats.

Taub says it’s not getting easier, even for immigration attorneys. In a memo last year, government officials decided not to take previous approvals into consideration for visa renewals. Then there are myriad problems faced by artists everywhere. One consequence of shrinking newspapers, for example, is the dwindling amount of documentation (reviews, interviews, profiles) once used by artists as proof of “excellence” required by the government.

Finally, there’s the Trump effect.

“You know, the attitude at the immigration service has never been a super positive one,” Taub says. “But the attitude has definitely changed. It has become one of maybe veiled skepticism to one of outward hostility.”

Taub says that she and her colleagues are getting increased requests for more information, adding to the cost and length of the process. Background checks can plod on for months due to backlogs and other delays. She also said that officials, likely encouraged by President Trump’s policies, are becoming more inclined to believe that jobs should go to American workers.

Even in the arts, that's more than just a patriotic notion. America has thousands of ballet schools and conservatories filed with aspiring ballerinas. Shelby County has several, including Ballet Memphis' own school.

The company’s founder and CEO Dorothy Gunther Pugh says it’s simply about making art with greater diversity.

“The mixing of ideas makes us all for the better; the mixing of people who believe different things,” Pugh says.

Foreigners may bring languages and cultural ideas to the studio, but in many ways, they are also quite similar to their American co-workers. Everyone, from everywhere, needs to pay the bills.

Iori Araya had to leave Tokyo, a city of 9 million, because mid-sized Memphis is a city where a ballet dancer can have a full-time career.

“We don’t really get a salary in Japan,” she says. “So you have to have a second job.”

Oscar Fernandez grew up in a small farming village in Spain where the idea of becoming a professional ballet dancer was almost unheard of. America gave him some much needed validation.

“Even my family I have to explain that I have a real job,” he says. “It’s not like my hobby. I remember my mom telling me, ‘Oh my God, they look like real people.’ ‘Yes, mom, they have wives, they have families and they are real people.”

Real people. Making a living. And doing what they love in a country where there's still some room on the dance floor.