Night Lights, a formerly Boston-based band now residing in Los Angeles, played their first L.A. show at the Hotel Café in Hollywood on Nov. 5. Despite an energetic performance and lots of love from the crowd at the popular venue, the band faces a dark and winding road — the quest to stay in the United States.
Although there are plenty of visa options for international students who have recently graduated from college, obtaining one is never easy. It’s even harder when you’re not in the coveted science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sectors.
For artists and musicians, like Night Lights, the options are slim and there is no guarantee for success. Even with the help of seasoned lawyers who specialize in the field, the review process by immigration officials remains complex and highly subjective.
Night Lights is made up of four members, three of whom are internationals. Drummer Dag Hanken is from Norway, guitarist Yusuke Sato is from Japan and singer-guitarist Mauricio Jimenez is from Mexico. Together with American bass player Jeff Kinsey, they met during their first year at Berklee College of Music four years ago.
“I had found a place on Craigslist just three nights before moving to the States,” says Hanken. But when he arrived, his new roommate was nowhere to be found and he couldn't get into the apartment. "It was 1 a.m. and Yusuke was sitting playing guitar on the stairs in the same apartment building. And we’ve been friends ever since. I also met Mau during my first week there.”
They moved to Los Angeles in hopes of gaining Night Lights some momentum and exposure. “Life moves a little slower here on the West Coast, so it’s been nice,” Hanken says.
The band was able to set up shop in a small rehearsal studio in North Hollywood. The tiny space is hard to move around in, and guests have to sit on the floor. But it’s enough room for the four bandmates to rehearse in two nights a week.
Hanken is in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) phase of an F-1 student visa, which allows him to work solely in his field of study. He isn't allowed to get a job at, say, a coffee shop to help pay the bills. It’s very limiting, but it hasn’t clouded the Scandinavian’s energy or mindset.
“It does keep you on your toes and you have to do what you're passionate about in the end. So it’s good in that sense, but it’s challenging because you have to be making money,” he says.
He acknowledges that moving to Los Angeles was a risk, because there is a lot of competition. “But there’s always a market for good music, so we’re just trying to do the best we can and have fun with it."
Hanken’s next step will be to file for an O-1 visa, also known as an artist visa. He could apply on his own, but Hanken feels that his luck will be better with the help of a lawyer. The most difficult part of his application will be proving that he's successful enough in his field to continue finding work in the United States. “In a way, you have to show that you have something to do here,” he explains.
Night Lights’ guitar player, Yusuke Sato, went to high school in the United States on an F-2 visa, which is issued to dependents of internationals with F-1 status; at the time, his mother was getting her Ph.D. in Seattle. He is now on his OPT, just like Hanken.
“Music is our medium, it’s what we’re good at,” says Sato. “It’s one of the only things I’m good at. We want to establish ourselves enough to have steady income and an identity in the world.”
As part of their effort to establish themselves as a band recognizable enough to be worthy of an O-1 visa, Night Lights booked their first L.A. show at the Hotel Café, a folk and rock club known for showcasing the likes of John Mayer and Leighton Meester. Many of the attendees were friends of the band. They played 10 songs that sounded like the upbeat lovechild of Coldplay and Keane — a mixture of "hooky melodies, danceable tunes and intriguing harmonic progressions," as they call it.
The band received a positive response, even from attendees who didn't know Night Lights and were there to see other bands. Frontman Jimenez was especially thankful to the crowd.
“Thank you so much,” he said toward the end of their set. “We’re Night Lights, give us high fives and hugs and kisses and money.”
The Mexico City native seemed right at home on the Hotel Café stage — more at home, he says, than he ever felt in his hometown.
“I grew up as an outcast. I couldn’t find my place in Mexico City," he says. “Your best friends are the people you went to school with and I felt that people didn’t really evolve as much down there."
Joe Adams, Esq., of Joe Adams and Associates, specializes in immigration and entertainment law. To help an artist such as Jimenez, Sato or Hanken apply for an O-1 visa, attorneys like Adams prepare a very detailed petition, 300 to 400 pages on average. It talks about who the artist is, who they’ve worked with, and who’s writing letters of recommendation. This petition goes to one of two processing offices for O-1 visas, in Vermont and Orange County.
The rules for O-1 visas were created in a way that allows subjectivity from the government adjudicators who review the petitions, according to Adams. They provide a lot of flexibility, because one good credit or recommendation might satisfy the key criteria that the applicant possess “extraordinary ability in the arts.” Unfortunately, Adams notes, this can also make it difficult to predict which applications will be approved.
“If you talk to 10 different people who’ve been through the process, you’ll find some people who are very high achieving and have had a hard time and you’ll find people who are lower achieving and have gotten straight through,” said Adams.
Adams, who has done over 1,000 of these cases, says that he has a “know-it-when-I-see-it” feeling about which applicants will make it through. However, even when he's had this gut feeling, it hasn’t always meant a successful case.
There are ways that aspiring visa holders can create the best possible outcome. “When we look for a potential O-1 visa, we look for things like high pay, garnered any attention [from] the press, or an award,” he says. “It can be difficult, but the OPT, when used strategically, can be used to check these items off the list.”
Often, letters of recommendation from recognized leaders in entertainment and the arts are crucial. “We go to great lengths to get these letters," says Adams. "They form a basis for the conclusion that the beneficiary has extraordinary ability.”
Jimenez’s OPT ends on Feb. 4 and he has a two-month grace period after that. He has hired a lawyer to help him with his visa, but he knows that proving “extraordinary ability” in a city as competitive as Los Angeles poses a challenge.
“It’s like me versus Russell Crowe," he jokes. Still, he believes that all of his band's accomplishments will help his cause. “The fact that we have two albums with Night Lights and played a lot of the East Coast and now West Coast ... even the spot we did for Fusion TV, all that helps.”
Jimenez thinks that the most important aspect is a recommendation from someone highly regarded in the industry. But recently, officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have gotten stricter with who they consider “highly regarded.”
“My friend who has a publishing deal and works under Kara DioGuardi was denied the visa because immigration officers didn’t consider her recognizable enough,” says Jimenez. DioGuardi, a former judge on American Idol, is one of the most highly respected names in the songwriting world, working with the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Carrie Underwood. “I’m a little scared because I don’t have someone like Kara DioGuardi signing off on me. It’s definitely going to be hard to find people higher up in the food chain."
Jimenez is well aware that there is no guarantee of securing the visa that will allow him to continue pursuing his career in the United States. He has a Spanish passport, so one of his other options is to head to Europe and try his luck there.
“It’s just sad because I’ve put so much work into Night Lights and my best friends are in Night Lights," he says. "It’s where my heart is. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 15."
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Even though, with three international members, the odds are stacked against Night Lights, Adams thinks their unique story might give them a chance. “There are many online journals and blogs for the music industry," he says. "It’s a 'more is more' proposition. Cumulative press, I think, can be very persuasive.”
But in the end, he cautions, “Immigration outcomes cannot be guaranteed.”