The privileged side of immigration

Miami Herald - Feb 19, 2007

Paola Varela and Carlos Bedoya, once little-known beyond their native Colombia, are now stars in South Florida: she as a top Spanish-language television personality, he as an acclaimed ''digital artist'' revolutionizing the recording industry.

Antonio Ellek, who began his quest for the American dream after leaving Turkey three decades ago, finally realized it by turning his Harvard business school project into Pasha's -- a popular South Florida Mediterranean fast-food chain he hopes to parlay into a worldwide brand.

Ellek, Varela and Bedoya do not reflect the typical immigrant experience. They are among the select few who are officially classified as ''aliens of extraordinary ability'' or whose presence is deemed in the national interest.

They hardly ever face delays getting a green card. They get the ''red carpet treatment,'' said Miami Beach immigration lawyer Vanessa Elmaleh, who recently won extraordinary ability approval for French champion boxer Ali ''The Hurricane'' Oubaali. ``Theirs is a platinum visa.''

In 2005, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, only 4,491 extraordinary ability immigrants became permanent residents -- compared to the almost 380,000 ''ordinary'' immigrants who obtained green cards through family or business sponsors.

The program drew attention last year when Argentine media star and sexpot Dora Noemi Kerchen, a k a Dorismar, was deported for being illegally in the country -- after her Miami attorney, Michael Feldenkrais, qualified her for extraordinary ability, but before her green card application was finalized. In the past, the program has been perceived as either too lenient toward undeserving applicants or too strict toward truly talented ones. Today, some immigration experts say, the pendulum has swung toward rigidity.

''For some period of time, the immigration authorities had a liberal view of who qualified as a person of extraordinary ability, but now the interpretation is far more strict and some might argue unreasonable, '' said Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration lawyer who is considered a national authority in his field.

Extraordinary ability, though, remains an issue of national concern as American research institutions and businesses face increasing global competition for the world's top scientists and multinational managers.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering suggested that other countries may wrest world leadership from the United States if Washington doesn't spend more on research or do more to attract the most talented people.

Last month, several academic and business organizations released recommendations to make U.S. visa policy more flexible as a way to draw more talented immigrants -- even if they don't all qualify for extraordinary ability.

''Without a system in place to ensure this essential flow, the United States risks losing its status as the destination of choice for the best and brightest in academia, business and science,'' the report said. Maralyn Leaf, a Miami immigration lawyer who has been getting extraordinary ability and national interest visas for clients since the early 1990s, says the visas benefit the country.

''What's going to keep the United States of America in the forefront is those who are coming here of extraordinary ability, so that we'll still be the most innovative country in the world,'' she said. Among her clients: Bedoya and Ellek. Others include Luigi Palma of Italy, a former Bascom Palmer Eye Institute research fellow who has won international acclaim for eye-infection fighting techniques, and C.J. Pérez of Venezuela -- one of Ellek's Harvard classmates whose Miami Beach company recruits candidates worldwide for top business management jobs.

The designation is not without some controversy. While many support expediting visas for extraordinary immigrants, some immigrant rights activists say undocumented migrants also deserve a chance to prove themselves.

''We must give a fighting chance for the thousands of others, who often wait years for these opportunities, or who have no status,'' said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami. ``Among these folks there may be a genius as well. They all have something to contribute.''

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