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Coronavirus has upended many lives, but immigrant journalists on visas face a grim reality

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For Trey Taylor, moving to New York City was nothing short of a dream come true. The Canadian citizen had worked tirelessly for about two years to secure a work visa that allowed him to work freely within the country. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the young journalist was unceremoniously terminated from his position at The Face Magazine. While the loss of a job is devastating for anyone, coupled with the anxiety around finances and securing unemployment, it came with deeper ramifications for an immigrant like Taylor.

With economic uncertainty on the rise and a recession looming, layoffs have hit almost every sector in the U.S., and the media has been no exception. From W Magazine, Conde NastThe AtlanticViceThe Outline, The Face, Culture Trip toThrillist—multiple publications have either laid off their entire staff or have had a significant number of furloughs, mostly as a result of business models that still rely on advertising—now largely dried up—for a significant chunk of revenue.

It did not help that the visa category Taylor was on, O-1B—a non-immigrant visa for individuals “who possess extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics”—was particularly complex. Demonstrating being an “extraordinary artist” meant gathering tons of evidence showcasing his entire life’s work along with a series of expert recommendations and potential job offers from media companies. And the sudden loss of employment meant that Taylor’s visa would expire at the end of June unless he quickly redid the application process, since his status was tied to employment with a specific company.

“To save on costs, the owner of the company [in London] decided to close U.S. operations entirely, meaning that the company I was employed by would be shutting down as of June 30,” he explained. 
He is now working with his lawyer to find a way to put together a sizable portfolio of “proof” in  record time as the U.S. government has suspended the option for expediting a decision within two weeks. For now, his future hangs in the balance.

“That means I am unable to even return home to visit my family,” he said. “It’s a costly, byzantine process and it is causing me a lot of anxiety.”

Sadly, Taylor isn’t alone in this predicament. Just ask Alejandro Filippa, a partner at New York-based law firm Lehach & Filippa,that works with a number of journalists and creatives to help them secure an O-1B visa. Filippa says that while his inbox is always flooded with emails from curious artists, over the past two months, he has received several panicked inquiries from clients questioning “what to do.” 

“Without a new sponsor to employ them, there are certain solutions that can only act as a bandaid to remain in the United States, such as switching to a temporary visitor visa to get one’s things in order or to buy some time perhaps,” Filippa explained.

While some, like Taylor, have chosen to remain in the country as they figure out a solution, others left to go back home when the pandemic started and are now permanently stuck. 

“Jane Smith,” who prefers to use a pseudonym, was ecstatic when brought on board to work with a top financial magazine on an H-1B from Singapore earlier last year. While H-1B continues to be one of the most popular work permit categories, it is still a legally complex and expensive process for the sponsoring employer. Most journalists and artists know it’s a category largely used by finance and tech companies with more resources. Naturally, Smith, who was hired for a top editorial position, considered herself lucky—until now. 

Assuming her job was safe, she decided to return back home to spend the duration of the pandemic with her family. With offices shut for the time being, everyone was stuck working from home anyway, she thought. Weeks into April, panicked messages from colleagues started pouring in, telling her they’d been laid off or furloughed. Soon she received a notice of termination along with a lengthy apology from her superiors explaining they had run out of options. Under the terms of her visa, she cannot be furloughed, leaving them no choice but to end her employment. Employees under H-1B have about 60 days to find another job (within a strict salary bracket and industry) or face deportation—rarely enough time in ordinary circumstances, let alone when it means conducting a remote job search from abroad in the midst of a pandemic. 

“I’m stuck,” she said. “Companies aren’t willing to sponsor right now, as if it wasn’t challenging enough to be looking for a job in journalism. I’m still on a lease and I have furniture, and so much more stuff back in my apartment in America, that I didn’t bring along. It’s an absolute nightmare.”

“Unemployment for the H-1B raises a myriad of problems,” said Florida-based top immigration attorney, Tammy Fox-Isicoff. “Many professionals on the H-1B visa have leases, families in school, own homes, [and] have belongings. These ties can’t necessarily be undone in 60 days or less. Many cannot even travel back to their countries of nationality to due closed borders. There were requests made to the administration to offer some type of ameliorative assistance to these individuals. No assistance will be forthcoming.”

President Donald Trump has indicated he would halt issuing new work visas across multiple categories including H-1B to counter the soaring unemployment within the country.

For immigrant journalists of color, many of whom hail from disadvantaged backgrounds, all this can mean going back home for good and leaving their entire lives and career prospects behind.

“I’ve lived here for just over three years. I’ve established a home, career, a relationship here,” said Taylor. “I cannot fathom having to leave at this point. I’ve sacrificed enough as it is just to be here, and would hate to have to leave due to circumstances beyond my control. I was hoping to apply for a green card soon, but I’ve been told that is just impossible. My heart truly goes out to other immigrants, especially immigrants of color and those with dependents. It’s never easy to start a new life anywhere, but for immigrants there is seemingly so much more to lose.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeena Sharma is a writer and editor based in New York City. She writes extensively about politics, social justice, fashion, and culture.


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Freelancing Ain’t Free

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When is the moment in time for a freelance writer that a late payment becomes wage theft, and what do you do about it?

 For A.J. Springer, who recently moved to the District of Columbia, the line was April 27, 2017, when he went public in a Chicago Tribune news story about the $1,755 owed him at the time for pieces he wrote for the magazines Ebony and Jet.

It’s hard to step forward as a freelance writer, and publicly demand payment. “A lot of people were uneasy or afraid to speak out. There are no protections for freelancers, and a lot of people are afraid of losing future work,” Springer said.

The Establishment first broke the nonpayment story, which spurred Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union (NWU)/UAW Local 1981, to start emailing and calling writers to say his union could help.

The NWU has a long history of fighting for freelance writers, filing suit against media companies in the 1990s to win back pay for those whose works had been sold and resold to databases. (Some writers actually received checks in the mail, out of the blue. As a freelance writer at the time in Boulder, Colorado, I was one of them.)

When Goldbetter reached Springer, he immediately joined the NWU, and so did other unpaid Ebony and Jet freelance writers.

Goldbetter says the list has been growing week by week since the campaign to get Ebony and Jet to pay hit the mainstream.

Six writers had come forward in early May. After Labor Day, the NWU filed a lawsuit against Ebony Media Operations and its parent company, Clear View Group, for allegedly violating the contracts of 37 freelance writers, editors and others who are collectively owed more than $70,000. The case was filed in Cook County, Illinois.

“Oftentimes, freelancers are at the mercy of the publications they write for,” Goldbetter said. “They often lack union protections other workers have and many are afraid of being blackballed for speaking up about nonpayment.”

Earlier in August, the National Association of Black Journalists presented Ebony with its Thumbs Down award, and unpaid Ebony writers attended the conference for free.

The decision to go public has paid off, at least in part, for Springer. He received about $1,100. He’s one of the writers suing the magazines.

Early in his journalism career, when Springer was still a high school student in Las Vegas, he learned of the power of the press. He interviewed the new school superintendent, who used a racial epithet. When the story broke, the superintendent was fired.

Now, with a master’s degree and more than a decade of paid writing and radio work behind him, Springer is thoughtful about a different kind of power—the kind you build together, through communication.

“When this issue came up, I was in a position to speak loudly and boldly,” he said. And so he did. “I knew if I lost any potential work, I’d be OK. It was important to organize and to speak out.”


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