5 Foreign-Born Agency Creatives on the Many Difficulties of the Immigration Process

From the designer who's also a Dreamer to a Canadian copywriter who simply gave up

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Adweek put out a call on Twitter asking people to share their experiences.
Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images, iStock

Adweek wanted to get closer to the story of how President Trump’s immigration policies are affecting foreign-born advertising talent, so we put out a call on Twitter asking people to share their experiences. Some of those interviewed requested their names be left out for fear of repercussions by the U.S. government. The five stories below encapsulate the challenges and disappointments creatives are facing as they try to pursue their ad-agency dreams in America.

The copywriter who returned to Canada

After graduating from a school in the U.S. in 2015, a Canadian-born copywriter obtained a temporary visa to land her first job at an independent agency. After the 2016 election, the agency was concerned about potential changes to immigration law, particularly with the withdrawal from Nafta, and made sure to apply for an H-1B visa, expediting the lottery process from eight to two months, which cost the shop around $1,500.

After some time, the copywriter decided there was little opportunity for advancement at the agency and landed a job at another U.S. shop, which meant she had to transfer her work visa to her new agency. She didn’t notify the first agency of the new job or try to negotiate for a higher salary because she worried that if she was rejected, her visa would be in jeopardy.

Although she successfully transferred her visa, she was eventually let go from the second agency, leaving her with 60 days to find a new sponsor. Her visa status made it especially difficult to land a job, she says, and the headhunter she worked with advised her not to tell agencies of her status upfront. “When they hear you need a visa, there’s an instant disinterest,” the copywriter says, explaining that a small independent agency even told her it wouldn’t hire her because of the difficulties of the visa process.

“Agencies don’t have the money anymore,” she says, and they don’t want to spend to hire junior creatives.

Now back in Canada, the copywriter says she is unlikely to return to the U.S. and is instead considering pursuing opportunities in areas where immigration would be easier, such as Shanghai, New Zealand, Australia and Amsterdam. —Erik Oster

Treated differently as a white foreign-born creative 

In late 2016, a creative recruiter called on French-born Geoff Desreumaux, now partner, head of strategy at SuperHeroes New York, determined to whisk him half a world away from his job running U.K. social media strategy for Diet Coke, Pizza Hut and other clients at London-based Lexis Agency to sunny Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he became social director at “retail powerhouse” Zimmerman Advertising.

In a demonstration of the value placed on international talent, the Omnicom agency paid to move him and his wife to Florida and “sponsor” him via an O1 transfer visa that allows both spouses to work in the United States. Desreumaux now estimates the overall cost was in the high five figures.

The real immigration drama didn’t begin, however, until he left Zimmerman after approximately one year due to what he describes as disagreements with management.

His visa then allowed him 60 days to find another employer “or gather my stuff in a humane way and get out of the country.” Fortunately, he had also begun applying for his EB-1 green card the previous week and soon landed at the New York office of Dutch shop SuperHeroes as strategy director.

“It took 65 days to get my work authorization, so technically I was illegal for five days,” Desreumaux says. “But I am a white dude. For them to come after me and find that I’m not authorized to work here? What are the chances of that?” He compares his situation to that of a colleague from Venezuela who works at an agency in Miami and receives visits from ICE officers “every two weeks,” even though his children are American citizens.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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