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The Two-Fold Impact of COVID on Immigrant Artists

Equity in the Arts
Stack of blue passports on a wood surface. A lock and a scrap of paper that reads "Covid-19" rest in front of them.

While we have turned our attention aggressively and obsessively to news media on how theaters have been closed, and how hospitals are overwhelmed by the spread of COVID-19, we tend to forget and neglect the impact on international artists, immigrants, and people who are stateless. In these past few months, there have been both increasing restrictions and uncertainty on travels and visas, as well as increasing xenophobia against people of Asian descent across the globe, but particularly in the U.S. 

As international artists ourselves, we both relate and sympathize with these experiences. Though we don’t have the capacity to make a legislative change, what we can do is to use our platform at The Lark to share these voices that haven’t been highlighted in the COVID-19 discourse. We have reached out to our friends around us and asked if they would like to share their testimonials. And we deeply appreciate them for being honest about their situation, and for being willing to share their stories with us and our community. 


1. Anonymous - Costume Designer on O1 artist visa.

Basically three of my shows that haven't opened or even started rehearsal yet have been canceled. Two that had opened closed early. I'm way better off than others, some people haven't even gotten paid their final paychecks, and I have been paid. The savings that I had are now just going into survive-the-quarantine mode. It would be reasonable to accept aid at this point, but the point of the O1 Visa is that you are financially stable without these jobs, which is stupid. I just can't apply for those artist emergency grants because of my visa. If the government finds out I'd become a public charge. The big show I was costume designing at an off-Broadway theatre was interrupted during tech, and my previously scheduled summer shows are indefinitely postponed as well. I bought mask making supplies to keep me occupied. I have no motivation to do my own work. I reached out to a group that was potentially going to pay people to make masks, but aside from an initial email I have yet to hear back, presumably they want to start tomorrow earliest. I am worried about family back home. So basically feel a little bit stranded here, with canceled work, and no opportunity to get home.

2. A. Nirmala Dious - India - Theater student on F1 student visa.

The main stress for me was deciding to leave. I was in New York for my study abroad from NYU Abu Dhabi. Many of my friends were planning to stay put to minimize travel and get some more time in the city. However, two of my friends saw the escalations and on the 12th they made an abrupt decision to leave and called me four hours before they went to the airports. At that point, I was on the fence between leaving and staying, partially due to the financial situation and health of my parents. After these two friends left, I contacted my parents and they got concerned that the U.A.E., where they live, would close borders like Kuwait did that day. After talking to them, I decided to leave. Some friends thought it was rash but seeing the way the U.S. was handling it concerned me. I had better access to health care and safety measures back home than in New York. My parents would be less stressed. I booked a flight for the next night and reached home on Saturday.

3. Karishma Bhagani - Kenya - Arts Administrator on O.P.T.

I am on a student visa, and was working for a theater company here in New York, pursuing my optional practical training (OPT) year after four years of undergrad at NYU. After social distancing began and economic uncertainty became a possibility, My country decided to close its borders and cancel all flights to New York. As a result, I had to make a decision to either leave the country, or risk staying through the peak of the pandemic and overstay my visa. I had to make a decision and, within hours, pack five years of my life and get on a plane back to my home country.

4. G. Shin - South Korea - Theater Scholar on F1 student visa

What made me most anxious is the uncertainty of this COVID-19 situation. The day after I booked my plane ticket home, 58 people were suddenly tested positive in Korea. First, I was worried about my family. Korea sends text messages that alert you where a person near you who was tested positive went and lived. My family's phones were bombarded with those messages and the positive cases were also getting nearer and nearer in distance. I was scared that the U.S. could ban my travel any time. I was quite devastated to feel that I could not go see my family. I don't know whether I can go this Summer or not. It seems unclear when I might know. Even if I go, I am not sure whether I'd be able to come back. Also, I don't want to expose my loved ones in Korea and the U.S. to the possible danger of infection by my travel. The U.S. is suspending new VISAs. This is affecting my friends who are accepted by Ph.D. programs in the U.S. this Summer.  Many Korean students are going back to Korea and the plane tickets skyrocketed. A lot of them feel that they might not be able to come back, but they are going back to Korea anyway for various reasons: Visas; they are no longer allowed to stay in dorms; the astronomical amount of health care costs in the U.S. even with health insurance compared to my home where the government covers all healthcare costs related to COVID-19, even for foreigners.

There have been an increasing number of racist hate crimes as a result of fear of COVID-19. I don’t feel safe here. Some of the Chinese students who were in the course I took didn't attend the class after a series of hate crimes. I could understand their fear especially as an East Asian who is not a U.S. citizen. I stopped going out before the shut-down. I really wanted to wear a mask. I couldn't wear it because I was afraid I might be attacked. Soon after, I heard the news that this time a Korean student was attacked for not wearing a mask. She was someone my friend knew. Then, I started to wear them. It came to me then that the hate crimes weren't far from me. It could be anyone who is East Asian, including me. Most of all, I was worried about my landlords, who live with me and to whom I feel emotionally the closest in New York. They are First-generation Korean-Americans, who faced uncountable racist remarks and discrimination. I was worried that this racialized situation of the COVID-19 may be burdensome and traumatic for them, or even that they might actually be attacked.

5. J. - China - Theatermaker applying for O1 visa

I feel I cannot control my life anymore. The major decisions in my life will be made by others. All I can do is to stay healthy and to wait. I am a theater artist based in NYC. I am originally from China, and I am applying for O1 visa. On March 20, Premium Processing in USCIS was eliminated, which had guaranteed 15-day processing. Due to this change, I have to wait for 2-3 months or even longer to know USCIS’s decision. My current visa has expired so I cannot legally work in the United States. I will be unemployed until USCIS authorizes me the right to work. Moreover, it’s hard to prove that my future theater and teaching contracts are still valid because all my teaching jobs or performance contracts got postponed or cancelled. I don’t know if I am able to convince USCIS that I can get jobs in the United States.

On March 25, I received a big piece of advice from my lawyer: Do not file for unemployment because that would be in violation of my immigration status as an F1 visa applicant and holder. The government takes foreign artists as super privileged people rather than workers. It seems that foreign artists do not need financial aid or social support.

Everyday, I keep telling my body Please Don’t Get Sick because I do not have health insurance. I cannot afford to be sick. I feel unsafe going outside not only because of the spread of coronavirus but also racism. I am afraid of being attacked as an Asian and Chinese. I saw so much hostility to foreigners or Asians. I ask myself, do I really need to stay here? No job. No health insurance. Cannot file the unemployment. As an immigrant, an Asian, and a freelancer artist, I am learning how to protect myself and survive everyday, because I have to live on my own in the United States.

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