U.S. "Genius" visa attracts entrepreneurs and Playmates

Fri Jun 29, 2012 1:16am EDT
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By Sarah McBride

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Shera Bechard, the Canadian-born former girlfriend of Playboy Enterprises founder Hugh Hefner, would not be an obvious candidate for the special visas that the U.S. government reserves for "individuals with extraordinary ability."

Playboy magazine named Bechard Miss November in 2010, and she also started an online photo-sharing craze called "Frisky Friday." Neither seems quite on the level of an "internationally recognized award, such as a Nobel Prize," which the government cites as a possible qualification.

But Los Angeles immigration lawyer Chris Wright argued that Bechard's accomplishments earned her a slot. The government ultimately agreed.

That kind of success has put Wright on the map as the go-to visa fixer for both Hollywood and Silicon Valley. It also highlights the use of so-called genius visas known as O-1s and EB-1s, which have largely escaped political controversy and are now the immigration solution of choice for many entrepreneurs.

As many immigration lawyers see it, the paucity of immigration options for the most entrepreneurial foreigners mean they must use any avenue they can. This approach, along with seeming flexibility in Washington on what constitutes "extraordinary ability," means the O-1 is gaining traction in technology circles. Wider use could ultimately land it in political trouble.

For example, the H-1B visa, which allows employers to hire foreigners temporarily in certain specialized fields like technology, has drawn accusations from union groups and others that companies use it to bring in lower-skilled labor.

The O-1 visa allows individuals of "extraordinary ability" to come to the United States for up to three years, and can be extended. British journalist Piers Morgan used one when he replaced Larry King on his late-night TV show, Wright said.

The EB-1 is similar, but leads to a green card and permanent residency rather than a temporary stay, with "extraordinary ability" being one of the ways to qualify - along with being an outstanding professor or researcher, or a multinational executive.   Continued...

Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and girlfriends Anna Sophia Berglund (L) and Shera Bechard arrive at the Society of Singers annual dinner in Beverly Hills, California September 19, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Prouser