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9/2/2010

News

The measure of a man
A local musician struggles to meet his immigration officer’s high expectations
Photo by Carlos Amoedo

 

On July 18, Orlando composer Benoit Glazer received a letter from Texas. Strangely, three of the four enclosed pages did not address him directly. Rather, they referred to him in the third person. The note, after dissecting Glazer’s career as a musician, summed up his accomplishments coldly: impressive, but not that impressive.

In any other case, Glazer would have crumpled up such a letter and reflected that his critics have far too much time on their hands. For the past decade, Glazer has conducted, directed and performed as the sole trumpeter for Cirque de Soleil’s La Nouba. He has also co-produced feature-film soundtracks that earned him Gemeaux and Felix awards (considered Quebec’s Emmys and Grammys, respectively), lectured to the world’s top trumpet players and he owns a U.S. patent on a new trumpet design. At 21 years of age, he was hired into a tenure-track conductor position in the world-class Jazz Orchestra Program at McGill University, a feat that the dean of the university says “hasn’t happened since and likely won’t happen again.” He’s considered a legend within the Drum Corps International movement, and he’s also an adept bassist (electric and upright), drummer, keyboardist, woodwind player and sound engineer. He’s the founder of an acclaimed nonprofit in Orlando, the Timucua Arts Foundation, which this publication called the city’s “best saving grace” in its 2009 Best of Orlando issue.  

But Glazer, a Canadian citizen who moved to Orlando in 1998 and has stayed in the country on an annual performer’s visa he has through Cirque du Soleil, couldn’t ignore this particular critique. In fact, it came from the only person in the world whose opinion could alter the course of his life and career – his immigration officer, known only to Glazer as Officer 0100. 

Writing from the department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with a return address from a P.O. Box in Mesquite, Texas, the officer summarized Glazer’s career as follows: “USCIS has recognized the petitioner’s talents; however, his accomplishments have not had a significant or sustained impact with [sic] their field.” 

And with that, Glazer was denied his request for a green card, which would have allowed him to live and work in the states on a permanent basis, which means he must string together temporary visas year after year.

“It was kind of weird to be told by someone who I didn’t know that my life isn’t really worth much,” he says.

Benoit Glazer is not the typical face of immigration problems in the United States: He is white, well-off and well connected, whereas most immigration stories focus on poor, desperate Latinos who risk everything for the prospect of a better life in this country. (Or, at the other end of the political spectrum, poor, desperate U.S. citizens watching jobs being snatched up by “illegal aliens” who reap the benefits of living in this country without incurring the costs.)

Glazer’s case illustrates that it’s not just the poor who are affected by schizophrenic U.S. immigration policy. He represents a faction of U.S. residents who are here legally but whose status is not secure – residents who own property, pay taxes and hold legal jobs but who know all too well that, although they’re allowed to live in the U.S., there is no guarantee that they’ll get to stay here legally, unless they can get a coveted green card.

To explain why an immigration officer was assigned to examine Glazer’s impact on contemporary music in the first place, one must go back to the spring of 2008. At that time, Glazer submitted a green-card application with a special petition attached, reserved for an “alien of extraordinary ability.” To be granted a green card on this basis, an applicant must convince the USCIS that he or she is, in the words of the department, “one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.” If the petition is accepted, the applicant jumps to the front of the green-card line, which is currently about six years long. (The USCIS is only allowed to issue 140,000 employment-based green cards per year.)

According to the USCIS, there were 4,597 extraordinary-ability applications submitted to the organization last year; roughly 57 percent of these were approved. In Florida, that percentage was markedly lower: Of the 119 applications submitted from the state in 2009, only four were approved.

During his earlier years in Orlando, Glazer had no need for a green card. He has lived and worked in the city on a P-1 “performer’s visa,” negotiated on his behalf by Cirque du Soleil. But the P-1 is restrictive, and it has to be renewed annually, which requires Glazer to apply for new identification and undergo an extensive background check every year. While waiting for his new ID to arrive, he spends five weeks a year stuck with an interim card – or, as he puts it, “a piece of paper that can’t even get me a U-Haul.” Because he is not a permanent resident, he is not eligible for a homestead-exemption tax break. He cannot accept a check from any other employer but Cirque du Soleil. And although his wife and three kids were allowed to come with him to live here, they’re not allowed to hold jobs.

Which was tolerable for a while, but after a decade of applying for new visas every year, Glazer decided it was time to make his residency permanent. His 16-year-old son, Charles, has college in the crosshairs, and in order to finance the lofty aspiration of attending M.I.T., he would need to get a job. The same goes for his 15-year-old daughter Camille, who is considering the University of Florida for veterinary school. And it’s only a matter of time before Glazer’s 12-year-old son, Jean-Marie, will be in the same position.

If Glazer can’t get his green card, his children will have to leave the country and apply for student visas in order to legally attend college and reside near their chosen universities. 

Unless an applicant has a Nobel Prize or similarly stratospheric award to boast, obtaining the kind of green card Glazer seeks involves fulfilling at least three of 10 criteria for “extraordinary ability,” as set forth in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, all of which involve demonstrating national or international recognition of one’s accomplishments. The criteria are examined by documenting the applicant’s memberships in prominent associations, coverage by reputable media outlets, publication in prestigious journals, history of commanding a significantly higher-than-average salary and so on. Joyful work for the narcissist, perhaps, but Glazer, who struggles to talk openly about his accomplishments without downplaying them, says assembling his 75-page file was “torture.”

Glazer’s application asserted that he fulfilled six of the 10 criteria. His immigration officer, however, argued that he fulfilled not a single one. Glazer was stunned. “It’s very rare, in my career, that I’ve been belittled so much,” he says. 

Glazer couldn’t get any help from Cirque du Soleil because the company only deals in P-1s. So, convinced that his officer was wrong, Glazer went to a local immigration attorney, Catherine Henin-Clark, a fellow French-speaking immigrant. She was not surprised by Glazer’s predicament, and told him that she had seen much weaker cases pass through the hands of USCIS with far less resistance. In other words, less extraordinary folks than Glazer were having fewer problems being acknowledged as extraordinary by immigration officers. 

In an interview with the Weekly, Henin-Clark gives what she considers a definitive example of the paradox. Roughly a decade ago, two brothers from the U.K., both internationally recognized wakeboarding champions, came to her for help with their extraordinary-ability petitions. She isn’t allowed to release their names, but she says that one of the brothers was, at the time, ranked number one or two in the world; the other was ranked beneath him. The petition for the lesser-ranked brother was accepted, Henin-Clark says, but she had to “fight tooth and nail” to get the same outcome for his more accomplished sibling. “Some examiners have higher standards in adjudicating than others,” she says.

After his meeting with Henin-Clark, Glazer became convinced that applying for his extraordinary-ability status was a “crapshoot” and that he was unlucky enough to have a draconian immigration officer assigned to his case. “[It] points to the randomness and subjectivity of the whole process,” he lamented in an e-mail to the Weekly.

The immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Bernard Wolfsdorf, disagrees in this regard. He thinks the 10 criteria are fair and “very well-crafted.” It’s the additional criteria, he says – those in the minds of the immigration officers, but not in the law books – that compels him to agree with Glazer. “It is often a crapshoot,” Wolfsdorf says of extraordinary-ability cases, which his firm litigates. “It often depends on whose desk the case lands.”

Wolfsdorf pointed to the sports world for the most infamous examples of officers imposing their own pet criteria. In 1993, professional hockey player Craig Muni was denied extraordinary-ability status by the INS (now the USCIS) because, in spite of his three Stanley Cup victories and his recognition as the “most underrated defenseman” in the league, he had still not been elected to an all-star team. In the same year, another NHL player, Allan Grimson, was denied because his immigration officer doubted the necessity of Grimson’s position as an “enforcer.” (The trademark fistfights of NHL games are, more often than not, instigated by the teams’ enforcers.)

The aforementioned denials were taken to court and eventually the players were granted green cards recognizing their extraordinary-ability designations. Similar appeals were made and settled in the decade and a half that followed, but none of them made it far up the chain of courts until December 2008, when Wolfsdorf’s law firm represented Poghos Kazarian, an Armenian citizen and theoretical physicist, in an extraordinary-ability case taken to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the court did not challenge the USCIS decision on Kazarian himself – it held that he merely qualified as being “exceptional,” not “extraordinary,” which is a different visa designation entirely – it criticized the USCIS for “unilaterally impos[ing] novel substantive or evidentiary requirements beyond those set forth” by the 10 existing criteria. It added that the organization had “an improper understanding” of immigration law as it pertained to extraordinary ability. 

Despite the victory, Wolfsdorf isn’t satisfied, and likely won’t be until he sees a comprehensive reform of the entire immigration system: “All we’re seeing is enforcement, enforcement, enforcement,” he says. “They’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, instead of saying: ‘Wait – legal immigration is good for America.’”

Given that the Kazarian decision was only made in March of this year, and that the U.S. legal system moves notoriously slowly, it remains uncertain how (or if) USCIS will modify its adjudication process. “We are always mindful that our decisions greatly affect people’s lives and therefore take great care to adjudicate applications fairly in accordance with the law’s requirements,” writes USCIS representative Sharon Scheidhauer in an e-mail to the Weekly.

As for those apparently difficult-to-please immigration officers, it’s anyone’s guess as to why they are the way they are. One could argue that, because an officer reads about “extraordinary” accomplishments all day long (there is a department of the USCIS that handles these petitions exclusively), he or she becomes more difficult to impress as time wears on. The safest and most acceptable explanation, however, is that these petitions are judged by human beings who are interpreting laws written by other human beings, and therefore, even with possible reform instigated by the Kazarian decision, cases like these will continue to arise and make headlines.

Benoit Glazer’s eyes are trained so intently on the bell of his trumpet that it’s almost as if he were anticipating that he might see the notes come out of the instrument. He plays a simple musical scale, then takes his lips off the mouthpiece and vibrates them like a sputtering motorboat. He’s warming up.

“With the trumpet, every day you’re a beginner,” he says. “There’s no escaping that.” He puts the instrument back to his lips, resumes the unflinching stare and plays the scale again.

The room he’s practicing in – the custom-built Timucua Arts Foundation performance space, which is set to host its 200th concert this fall – has his fingerprints all over it. Glazer and his eldest son installed much of the ship-lapped wood ceiling themselves, not to mention all the electronic gadgetry snaked about the place. 

Glazer knows every detail of every surface in the room; nothing exists without an acoustic purpose, not even the Tiki masks hanging from the second-floor balcony. (Their uneven surfaces help to diffuse sound waves, which reduces unsavory reverb.) 

He brings his face to within a few inches of an unfinished brick wall adjoining the stage. “One, two, check,” he says into the wall, then turns and says: “You see? It’s a very warm sound.”

Fifteen minutes from now, Glazer will cross the street to teach his class at Boone High, where he manages the school’s “big band” jazz orchestra program. It’s unpaid work, but it’s not the light duty of a typical volunteer gig. Piles of books for the class sit below his desk, each designed for a different player in the orchestra, each filled with many scores written by Glazer himself. Near the books sits his computer, on which Glazer is editing the latest in a series of self-published DVDs documenting performances by various artists at Timucua, including some shows put on by the kids he teaches at Boone. Somewhere in the pile of folders and papers can probably be found some sketches or model printouts of the trumpet he invented, which he says is “only two hours of work” away from completion.

The “White House,” as those outside of the Glazer household call Timucua, was finished in 2007 after two and a half years of construction. Although it’s both a venue and the family home, Glazer considers it his gift to the community and it has become the foundation for a thriving part of the local arts scene in Orlando.

In its short life, the house has hosted top-tier musicians from all over the world; some have been so impressed by the venue (and Glazer’s technical prowess) that they have recorded albums there. Yet the heart and soul of the White House are its live shows, and the schedule for this fall includes a tribute to Leonard Cohen later this month, a performance by a Japanese percussionist in October and a visit from a “funky brass band” from New York in November.

“We always try to emphasize living composers and new music as much as we can,” Glazer says.

Financially speaking, Glazer says he’s poured everything into the White House. He points to his car – a Toyota Echo – as evidence that his largesse is limited. The example may be unnecessary, as during this interview Glazer dons a pair of Wrangler cargo shorts and a plaid button-up that looks like a shirt one of his students could have left behind in class. 

Glazer’s frequent – and free – concerts have brought many Orlandoans to his door, including a friend of U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson. It wasn’t long before Grayson’s office was, according to Glazer, “gently pressing” the USCIS to take another look at his case.

 “I know my family will eventually be OK,” he says. “But I don’t know how to feel, because … am I going to get my green card because I deserve it, or am I going to get my green card because I know people?”

Still, Glazer considers the possibility of everything going awry, even with his new-and-improved green-card application, the expertise of a lawyer and the weight of a congressman behind him. Those things still might fail to budge Officer 0100. If he is rejected again, he says, his last resort would be the lengthy (and costly) appeal, which he could ultimately lose in court. What would he do then?

“I would ask to be assigned [by Cirque du Soleil] to a show that’s elsewhere,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind living in Spain.” That would mean he’d have to sell his home, which he’s spent years crafting with both his mind and his bare hands. Unless a similarly dedicated and wealthy musician bought the place after Glazer’s departure, it’s unlikely that it would ever be utilized as it is now: $85,000 worth of soundproofing would be left without a purpose and $100,000 worth of windows would be devoid of the colored lights that fill them during a performance. Yet to Glazer, the lost investment in the house will be the last thing he’d miss if he had to leave Orlando – he’d also miss the community he’s been so heavily involved in for so many years.

“My mom says she intends to die as poor as she can—and I intend to do the same,” he says. Realizing he had accidentally brought attention to one of his positive characteristics, he lets out a nervous chuckle and changes the subject.

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