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Hey, Matt:

Why can foreigners like David Beckham, Yao Ming, and many others just pop over to the USA whenever they want, make millions here "working," yet the foreigners who come to pick the lettuce get their butts deported as soon as they are found? If there is some easy way to get a work permit for the Beckhams, why can't the poor foreigners get one too? Sounds very unfair to me.

-- Legal in Santee

Part of your answer is the fact that nobody will pay huge sums for season floor seats to watch an anonymous immigrant pick lettuce. Beckham, Yao, and planeloads of athletes, performers, educators, tech specialists, biochemists, and other professional superstars can get past the migra easily with their O-1 visas. These are reserved for what the consular service calls "aliens of extraordinary ability."

So, how do you prove you have extraordinary ability? You need some sort of "sustained national or international acclaim" and letters from peers stating what an extraordinary alien you really are. Cited often in the professional literature as an expert? Have a Nobel Prize or two? Film and TV personalities need to show some "advanced achievement." Athletes need a "level of expertise not possessed by others" and must have risen to the top of their professions. Beckham seems to qualify, but there's lots of wiggle room in those descriptions. "Extraordinary ability," in reality, might mean being over seven feet tall or being a handsome, photogenic Australian bloke.

O-1s must have a guarantee of employment before they enter the U.S. (Nike, in the case of Yao), and the future employer handles the visa-application process. Once you have your papers, the consular service considers you a "temporary worker," not an "immigrant"; the visa says nothing about residency -- just employment -- and gives you no resident-alien status. If eventually you get booted off the movie set or out of the locker room or genetics lab, your employer is supposed to buy you a one-way ticket back to Shanghai or Manchester or wherever you came from.

The consular service offers 11 different kinds of "temporary worker" visas covering different situations. If you're a foreign employee of an extraordinary alien and your work is vital to keeping the alien extraordinary, then you get an O-2 visa. And in Beckham's case, the adorable Skeletal Spice gets an O-3 visa identifying her as the spouse of an extraordinary alien, but it doesn't give her permission to work.

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