Extraordinary alien

ways to enter, ways to stay

I became a US citizen on August 11, this year (2021). Prior to my swearing in, I had been a Green Card holder since 2015. And prior to that, I had been a legal alien resident. My visa was the O-1 type, which defined me as “an alien of extraordinary ability” My ex-wife and I had bought a condo in Orlando in 2009 an began flying down from Toronto for long weekends and short holiday stays. We bought the place at the very bottom of the market. I don’t live there anymore but suffice it to say that it has quadrupled in price in the past 12 years - with the truly steep climb starting two or three years ago. While spending time in Orlando, I got to meet many local musicians: Orlando is Disney Central, of course, and Disney attracts the best of the best from all over the world. It became clear to me that I wanted to do more than just to spend lazy weekends by the pool and visit Gatorland. I started jamming with local musos and was very motivated to actually move down here. Let me rewind just a bit:

I had wanted to live in the United States for as long as I could remember. And it was all because of the music. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were British, of course, but it didn’t take long for me to discover who THEIR idols had been: Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran; in the Stones’ case bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Albert King. Then there were the fashions - which predated the Beatles even: drainpipe jeans and polo shirts. And the books: everything and anything by Hemingway. John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. John F. Kennedy, the moon mission…everything COOL was American. The more the Soviets tried to make us hate the Yanks, the more we loved them. The gum chewing hockey players (well, ok, they were mostly Canadians but we could hardly make a distinction back then), the smuggled posters of James Dean. The odd John Wayne movie - dubbed into Czech! It was an irrational love because we didn’t know any actual Americans and didn’t even get to taste any American products - we just dreamt of Coca Cola while we drank the Czech imitation, Kofola.

In 1980, I ended up in Toronto and a few years later became a Canadian citizen. Prior to 9/11, crossing the US border was a yawn. We drove down to shop at the Walden Galleria in Buffalo, NY, about 1.5 hour drive from Toronto. We drove down to see the Leafs play the Sabres sometimes. You flashed your driver’s license at the border guard and that was about it. American teens crossed into Ontario because the legal drinking age there is 19. All of that ended immediately after 9/11. For all intents and purposes, the United States could have been France or Japan. You needed a valid passport, a valid reason and security got super tight at every crossing.

Toronto is a great metropolis and if you can somehow get used to the winters, you’ll never lack for anything. The cultural scene is as diverse and dynamic as London, the theater scene as exciting as Broadway (and cheaper), the culinary scene is the best in North America - and I’ve eaten in almost every large American city. But…it’s Canada. With all its allure, the city of Toronto still somehow manages to be sedate and boring underneath the surface. “A great city for dentists and accountants,” a friend used to say. And so after we had bought the condo and after I’d met with an jammed with some fine musicians in Orlando, my ex and decided to try and move to the US. I consulted a lawyer and was told the O-1 visa was probably the most viable route for me to try. The visa would entitle me to work in my field (music) but not to seek work outside of it. I also needed to work through an American agent.

I set about gathering my documentation. Decades of newspaper clippings, reviews, articles about me and my various bands, my tours in Canada and overseas, photographs with various musicians - famous and not so famous - copies of all my CD covers (I have about ten of my own and five that I have produced for other people). It was a large pile and it took a few months to put together. Then I gathered testimonials from various American musicians who knew my work and asked them to send letters to the USCIS - preferably with good things to say. I already had an agent lined up - a good friend who lived in L.A. and thorough whom all my bookings, no matter where in the country, would go. Finally, the feather in my cap, a petition from my main sponsor, the world famous jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. Sadly, the great Larry C is now gone…and absolute gem of a man, willing to help any way he could - despite the fact he did not know me all that well: he had given me one or two lessons and I had once opened for him in Toronto. Larry is sadly missed. A true old guard type of guy: generous, completely lacking in ego and totally immersed in his music.

With a thick file of past achievements in music, ten affidavits from musicians, an agent lined up and a sponsorship from Larry Coryell, I was ready. All that was needed was the $1,500 USCIS fee and the $3,500 lawyer fee. I also paid an extra $1,000 for expedited processing. I received my visa in December 2011, valid till October 2014. I packed up a small case and flew down. Two of my guitars had already stood on guitar stands in my Orlando living room. My wife and our dog Hugo would follow later. But in the three years that followed, three pivotal events happened: I got divorced, I fell in love with the US - and life in Florida - much more than I though I would, AND I fell in love with my wife Diane.

I received my Green Card in March 2015. By that point I had spent over $10K in Immigration fees, legal fees, biometric fees, medical fees and FBI security check fees. The culminating point, my US citizenship was another $800 but God knows it has all been worth it and I would do it again, even for twice the cost. More opportunities have opened up for me in the US and more friendships have been cemented in just the first few years than in my 30 in Toronto. This is not a slight on Canada. I just love it here and perhaps that makes everything easier.

Now imagine how I feel when I see tens of thousands of people streaming into the country on the Southern border. No vetting, no papers, no fees, no sponsorships, no medical checks. I, too, was once a refugee. Austria was the country that let in tens of thousands of fleeing Czechs and Slovaks in 1968 - and we have never forgotten it. But Austria was just a way station. The vast majority of refugees applied through proper channels to immigrate to Canada, the US, Australia, South Africa. Some stayed in other European countries. But every person was checked and vetted and, just as importantly, the majority were legitimately running away from political persecution. I am not angry at the poor people from Haiti and Mexico and Uganda and Venezuela. I was once just like them. I hold no grudge against them. But I HATE the US Government for allowing this ungodly mess to continue, for charging people like myself thousands and making us wait months and years - yet turning a blind eye on an unending stream of illegals, all of whom will be supported by our dollars. It lacks legality, it lacks compassion, it lacks common sense, it lacks morality. Refugees deserve to be heard. But citizens do not deserve to be ignored.