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Foreign Artisans, Actors Scramble for Immigration Papers Before Pilot Season

TV pilot season ramps up this month, luring artisans and actors from around the world to Los Angeles, where they hope to find work on one of the new network series and, if all goes well, score a recurring gig.

But if they’re not United States citizens, they’ll need to deal with immigration law, which can be a frustration worthy of its own TV series for those who aren’t adequately prepared.

Talent both above and below the line face a myriad of confusing regulations and procedures that inhibit their chances of working legally in the L.A. film and television factory.

British writer-director Emma Holly Jones, now in pre-production on her first feature, “Everything Carries Me to You,” advises being organized — a strategy that served her well in obtaining a work visa in 2010, and a renewal in 2013. “I write lists every day,” she says. “The immigration service was very specific about what it wanted.”

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services handles visas — in particular, the O-1B classification for individuals with an “extraordinary ability” in the arts or “extraordinary achievement” in motion picture or television industry.  Mexico-based cinematographer Alejandro Martinez, who has renewed his visa three times since shooting 2006’s “Stay Alive” in New Orleans, says the key to navigating the red tape is to get a competent attorney. “It’s not complicated as long as you have people who want to get the work done,” he adds.

Attorney Joe Adams, who specializes in immigration cases, notes that the period from January through March is the busiest, because budgets for pilots are getting approved. “Petitions are 300 to 400 pages, and there’s no clarity in the rules, so you don’t know how they are going to be applied,” he says. Wait time for visa during those months can be around two months, he notes.

British actress Esme Bianco, best known for her portrayal of the prostitute Ros on “Game of Thrones,” says she began researching the process of getting a green card (a U.S. Permanent Resident Card) a decade ago. “The process is something that would test anyone’s patience,” she say. “A lot of people underestimate how important it is and just decide to wing it.”

Bianco first came to Los Angeles in 2011 with a three-year visa, thanks partly to her work as a burlesque performer. She applied for a green card in September 2013, received the first approval in mid-summer, passed a background check and scored the card in October.

Visa extensions also can be key. Australian cinematographer Greg de Marigny secured an O-1 several years ago but hasn’t used it yet because “as soon as I got it, I got offered to direct the Australian series ‘Winners and Losers,’ ” he notes. But the visa has been extended, and he still plans to use it.

The type of visa also matters. Robert Hall, a Brit who edited “Son of God,” has used a specialized O-2 for work on “The Last Word” in New Orleans, but plans to apply for a more encompassing O-1. “There wasn’t enough time for me to get an O-1, but that would really open up my opportunities,” he says.

Production designer James Merifield says he was impressed at how quickly the bureaucracy moved after Lionsgate decided he was needed in the U.S. when Johnny Depp starrer “Mortdecai” shifted from London to Los Angeles.

“I had to wait at the embassy in London, then surrender my passport,” he recalls. “They used a runner to deliver it to my house the next day, so I only missed one day of production.”

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