Shera Bechard, the Canadian-born former girlfriend of Playboy Enterprises founder Hugh Hefner, would not be an obvious candidate for the special visas that the US government reserves for “individuals with extraordinary ability.”
Playboy magazine named Bechard Miss November in 2010, and she also started an online photo-sharing craze called “Frisky Friday.” Neither seems quite on the level of an “internationally recognized award, such as a Nobel Prize,” which the government cites as a possible qualification.
However, Los Angeles immigration lawyer Chris Wright argued that Bechard’s accomplishments earned her a slot. The government ultimately agreed.
That kind of success has put Wright on the map as the go-to visa fixer for both Hollywood and Silicon Valley. It also highlights the use of so-called “genius visas” known as O-1s and EB-1s, which have largely escaped political controversy and are now the immigration solution of choice for many entrepreneurs.
As many immigration lawyers see it, the paucity of immigration options for the most entrepreneurial foreigners mean they must use any avenue they can. This approach, along with seeming flexibility in Washington on what constitutes “extraordinary ability,” means the O-1 is gaining traction in technology circles. However, wider use could ultimately land it in political trouble.
For example, the H-1B visa, which allows employers to hire foreigners temporarily in certain specialized fields like technology, has drawn accusations from union groups and others that companies use it to bring in lower-skilled labor.
The O-1 visa allows individuals of “extraordinary ability” to come to the US for up to three years, and can be extended. British journalist Piers Morgan used one when he replaced Larry King on his late-night TV show, Wright said.
The EB-1 is similar, but leads to a green card and permanent residency rather than a temporary stay, with “extraordinary ability” being one of the ways to qualify — along with being an outstanding professor or researcher, or a multinational executive.
Foreign entrepreneurs have another option — the Immigrant Investor Program, or EB-5 visa — but it requires a capital investment of at least US$500,000 and the creation of at least 10 full-time jobs for US workers. By contrast, no proof of personal wealth or investment in the US is required for the O-1 or the EB-1.
There is also no cap on the number of O-1s that the government can award each year: About 12,280 were approved last year, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said, up from 9,478 in 2006. It issued about 25,000 EB-1s last year, below the cap of 40,000.
The H-1B is much more popular. Applications hit their annual cap of 85,000 earlier this month.
While high-profile artists and entertainers have long used the O-1s, they are now becoming a fallback for businesspeople and technologists who cannot get H1-Bs.
Josh Buckley, a 20-year-old British-born entrepreneur and a client of Wright’s, is among the new crop of Internet entrepreneurs to win an O-1 visa. He applied after starting a few small companies, including one he sold at age 15 for a sum reaching the low six figures, he says.
He got his O-1 last year after lining up letters of recommendation from luminaries including Netscape cofounder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and Apple Inc cofounder Steve Wozniak.