Lorena Jaramillo in Brooklyn. Photo by Milie Nelson, Courtesy Jaramillo

For Immigrant Dancers, the Stakes Are High to Find Work During the Pandemic

With thinning budgets and canceled performances, finding work as a dancer has only become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for immigrant artists who rely on artist visas to stay in the U.S., the pandemic has compounded an already arduous process.

"There are so many mental hurdles in our way just to be in the audition room," says Lorena Jaramillo, a 23-year-old dancer from Mexico City. Jaramillo immigrated to New York City at 18 to study dance at Marymount Manhattan College. After graduating in 2019, her student visa allowed her stay in the U.S. for one year and work in her field.


Fresh out of an undergraduate program, the stakes were high to land a job. "It's very stressful to have to get a job in dance right away after graduation," Jaramillo says. "It really pushes you to be like, 'Alright, this is my only choice. I better get it.'"

Now, with an expired work permit, the only way for Jaramillo to stay in the U.S. is to apply for and obtain an artist visa, or an O-1B visa, a lengthy process that she began in January and has been delayed by the pandemic.

An O-1B visa is a temporary visa for "individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Ultimately, it gives an artist permission to work in their job title for up to three years at a time.

A crucial component to getting this kind of visa is showing evidence of substantial achievements and showing that you have work lined up for the duration of the visa. For dancers, that means gathering proof of substantial achievement in the form of awards, articles in the press featuring your work, being hired for lead roles, or particularly well-paying gigs, explains Justin Lynch, an immigration attorney and dancer in New York City.

"That's really hard to do within only one year after graduation, and it's really hard to do in a pandemic," Jaramillo says.

To make things more difficult, in March, as many people hunkered down to avoid COVID-19 transmission, and some international dancers returned to their home countries, U.S. embassies and consulates abroad stopped processing visa applications except on an emergency basis. "For a majority of people, obtaining a work visa that would enable them to come—or return to—the U.S. to work was impossible," Lynch says.

More than eight months into the pandemic, companies and employers in the dance field continue to face uncertainty about when performances will be able to safely resume. "There is work, but it's severely curtailed and that is affecting how easy it is to provide the kinds of evidence that need to underlie a visa petition," Lynch says.

Immigration Services has become increasingly stringent with wanting to see offers of employment, which is tricky for gig-based dancers who don't have full-time sponsorship from a dance company, says Jane Orgel, an immigration attorney in New York City who works with performing artists.

"This has of course been multiplied due to the pandemic, because so many dancers who were about to get offers for performances have had them withdrawn," Orgel says.

Even established companies are working hard to support their international dancers. At the start of the pandemic, for example, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which employs many international dancers from Italy, Japan, Colombia and Australia, to name a few, was in the process of renewing visas for a few international dancers.

"When this hit, it became very apparent to us that we needed to put extra attention on how they were doing, where they were going and if they were going to be okay," says Dwight Rhoden, founding artistic director and resident choreographer of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

"It has been challenging," Rhoden adds.

Beyond the logistics of putting together a visa application and supporting materials, the dancers are "a little bit on edge," Rhoden says. Some international dancers are back in the U.S., and others are still in their home countries and will return when it's safe to go back to work, he says. "They worked so hard to become a part of this company, and it's just sort of hanging in the balance for them right now."

In Jaramillo's case, she's staying in shape through virtual classes and rehearsals with Sydnie L. Mosley's SLMDances and Nicole Kadar & Dancers, two companies that she's danced with since the start of 2020.

"As an immigrant, you constantly have to be proving that you are getting jobs and getting performances done in the U.S.," Jaramillo says. "When the industry has completely stopped or paused, it's really hard to prove that."

There are ways to put together a successful visa petition, even during COVID-19, Lynch says. For example, some dancers are able to teach dance virtually, or rehearse for future performances, he says. "A lot of artists don't realize that work and performances done overseas counts towards their track record and portfolio," Orgel says. "It's important to document this experience, whether paid or unpaid."

Orgel says she often works with ballet dancers who incorporate modeling dancewear into their visa applications.

Of course, seeking professional advice from an attorney is also key, says Rachel Wool, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles who focuses on O-1 visas. Immigrant dancers have reason to be hopeful, she says. For one, president-elect Joe Biden's incoming administration is expected to reform a variety of things, including employment-based immigration.

"There are pieces of the puzzle that might be a little more difficult to obtain," Wool says. "But it doesn't mean you're not worthy of the visa nor does it mean you shouldn't apply."

Jaramillo relies on her parents to support her financially during this time. "My parents want me to be here and be able to do my career at the fullest, because I wouldn't have the same opportunities in my country," she says. But her visa application and the legal fees that come along with it "come with an extensive cost," she adds. Immigration lawyers can range from $5,000 to $10,000, and the USCIS application fee was recently raised to $705, she says.

At times, Jaramillo has considered "giving up and going home," she says. "But I am committed to the communities I have found here and the ways in which I know my work here has made a difference."

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January 2021