The LA Attorney Bringing Global Artists to America’s Stage

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Imagine this real life scenario: A global music star’s flight was departing in four hours from Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Los Angeles. He was nervously waiting for his passport containing his newly printed US visa, an O-1B, for those with “Extraordinary Ability in the Arts,” the only paperwork that would get him into the US.

The saga had begun several weeks prior.  After a quick interview for his O-1 visa renewal at the US Consulate in Sao Paulo during the South American leg of his tour, he was told his passport would be sent to a courier within two days. However, after the interview, things took a turn. Despite his squeaky-clean record, the artist’s name was flagged for administrative processing –the same system utilized when the US Dept. of State flags a national security issue.

“This will take at least three months,” said the government officials.  But the star only had three weeks before the launch of his multi-million-dollar stadium tour through the US. “This was really bad news,” says David Melik Telfer, a Los Angeles based immigration attorney whose practice focuses on the entertainment industry.

“Most immigration attorneys will say ‘immigration is a black box,’ and, it really can be. However, the longer I practice, the more I realize this faceless bureaucracy is made up of real people, individuals who can be located and contacted if you work hard enough. Many of them care about doing the right thing, but you must find the correct person at the right level, or nothing will happen.”

“In the Sao Paulo case, it took a lot of work for us to get this up the chain for a speedy review – there isn’t some ‘super star’ button you can press, and no one at The US Department of State wants to be the guy that gave Richard Reid (the shoe bomber) a visa, so any case marked ‘national security’ will stall for some time. My job is to pound on doors, doors that are not easy to find, until we get to the right person. Clearly, this global star was not a security threat, but without finding someone with real authority who cares about your case, nothing moves.”

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Several weeks of pounding on doors paid off, the visa was finally issued –-but there was a catch. The artist had traveled to other shows in Brazil and only had 36 hours to return to Sao Paul, retrieve his passport (with visa), and fly to the US for the tour. Unfortunately, the US consulate mailed the passport to the original courier on the outskirts of Sao Paulo rather than holding it for the artist to collect, as had been agreed between David and the consulate.

“The courier was due to deliver the passport to the artist at his hotel half an hour before the artist needed to be at the airport. I used to live in Sao Paulo, I knew where the courier was, where the artist was, and where the airport is – this was a disaster.  I called the courier, the artist’s manager, agent, and everyone else involved. On my twentieth call of the day, right when I thought we were completely doomed, I received some good news, ‘we got a helicopter’ his tour manager told me.”  They got him a helicopter from his hotel to the airport. Three weeks of fighting to finalize this visa came down to the last hours and I didn’t think we were going to make it. This is the big leagues.”

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Much like the Sao Paulo story, David’s story is all but linear. He moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to attend UCLA Law School. “I arrived in Los Angeles with some anxiety, I was unsure if I’d measure up at UCLA Law, it was a huge shift from North Carolina.  But I loved it from day one and I flourished there.  After graduating, I landed a great job at Greenberg Glusker, a law firm known for its entertainment department. I worked in the trusts and estates department and had a wonderful boss, but I was competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the time and had opened a with another UCLA grad as a passion project. I left my well-paying job in 2009 for a gym that earned me $300 a month to focus on training.  It was a pretty wild decision.”

“I had a great run with the gym and with competing in BJJ, but I was ready to go back to law.  I started back this time at a small immigration firm that mostly worked with removal defense. It was tough, poorly paid, unglamorous and I loved the fight of it.  Once I started developing some entertainment clients, I founded DMT Law Firm and found my place.”

Today, DMT Law Firm and its 20 employees represent CAA’s music department among other major agencies and clients. DMT’s clients include the top tier of global artists worldwide, from Scandinavian death metal to K-Pop sensations to the new wave of outstanding Nigerian artists.

“I’m lucky, I found something that suits me. I enjoy a good fight, and I believe that’s somewhat unique in my industry.”  The ‘invisible wall’ created by the Trump administration created many challenges for legal immigration in addition to illegal immigration. Attorneys were receiving outrageous denials, and that was when DMT received its first ever O-1B visa denial.  “Most attorneys were refiling denied cases, I knew that would no longer work. And then I discovered federal court. Unlawful government decisions can be challenged in federal court, and I knew we would win because USCIS [US Citizenship and Immigration Services] was acting outside of the law. My first lawsuit changed everything. It was stressful but allowed us to demonstrate our true value to our clients and opened my eyes to unorthodox ways I could advocate for my artists.”

While David says the climate at USCIS is unchanged, some improvements have occurred, and he’s discovered more ways to overcome obstacles he once believed insurmountable. David also continues fighting outside of his law practice at his new Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym located in Culver City: “this one is a co-op, a community based around BJJ and aptly named, “The Coop.”

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