Freeze frame from "The Extraordinary Ones"

What makes a person extraordinary?

One of the most coveted types of visas are those which allow foreigners to live and work in the U.S. if they can prove they have extraordinary abilities in their fields. The O-1 “extraordinary persons” visa lasts for one to three years and can be renewed; the EB-1 version leads to permanent citizenship. Tens of thousands of people apply for each type every year, from Italian filmmakers to Moroccan hair stylists, often paying thousands of dollars in lawyer and application fees. Here are the stories of three visa applicants who successfully received the “extraordinary person” designation.

In 2010, Anisha Dadia came to New York from the U.K. to pursue a career in acting. After graduating from a two-year conservatory program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she wanted to stay in the city. Juggling student film auditions and babysitting gigs, Dadia kept working on her acting portfolio so she could apply for an O-1, which would allow her to extend her stay in the United States until 2015.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services lists dozens of criteria for qualifying for an O-1 or EB-1. They range from proof of original scholarly or artistic work, to “evidence that you command a high salary.” But there is no formula for what gets one person in over another. Often, the application process takes years. No one really knows what “extraordinary” means. Sure, Olympic medals, Nobel Prizes, and articles in internationally recognized media outlets can help convince authorities at USCIS, but none guarantee a person’s entry.

Zoja Mihic is a jewelry designer with clients in Europe and the United States. Originally from South Africa, she moved to Paris and then applied for an EB-1 visa. She arrived in New York a few weeks ago without an apartment, a studio, or many of the connections that are so crucial to her business. Still, Mijic said she’s excited to get settled, and adapt to the frenetic pace of the city.

Josu de Solaun is a world-renowned classical pianist from Spain. He applied for his EB-1 visa over two years ago, and then made the mistake of leaving the country. For one year, while his visa was being processed, he couldn’t re-enter. He lost concert gigs, students, and the way of life he’d grown accustomed to.  Now, de Solaun has finally made it back to New York, with his “extraordinary” status intact, but he says the convoluted experience left a bitter taste in his mouth.

The visa requirements have come under fire from business leaders and immigration lawyers in recent years for being vague, subjective, and forever changing, depending on who happens to be making decisions at USCIS at any given time. But for people who dream of calling New York and the United States home, the visas, and the bureaucratic pain still associated with them, are often their only hope.

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Peter Moskowitz is a multimedia journalist and writer based in New York. He’ll be graduating from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in December.

Claudia Bracholdt is a German multimedia journalist based in New York. She is a master’s candidate at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and has worked on documentary projects and newspapers in Germany and the U.S.

Natalia V. Osipova is a bilingual Russian video journalist based in New York City. She currently shoots visual stories for The New York Times.

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