For the past 23 years, I have been housing theatre people, mostly opera folks when opera is in season here. There is always a spare room for out- of-town singers, directors, or costumers who need a place to stay.
Six years ago, I met Domingo and Alexandra, two world-class opera singers from Argentina who spoke about wanting to leave their country. The government there had taken over the banks, had taken the money from their accounts, had taken over the opera house and then had failed to pay either of them for their performances. Unable to pay their mortgage, they lost their home, as had many others.
We remained in contact for several months, and it was finally agreed they would move here to Delaware and live in the old family house in Newark now that my mother was in senior living. In September of 2006, Domingo and Alexandra arrived on my doorstep in Newark with 8 suitcases and 3 cats. The objectives were basic: Get comfortable, be legal, go for the American Dream. I left the house furnished, found them a car, and directed them to insurance companies, accountants, and banks. They took on responsibilities and challenges with the spirit and strength of warriors.
They were beautiful, intelligent, gifted people who charmed everyone they met. Still, it was a rough four years. In spite of Alexandra’s remarkable résumé and several enthusiastic politicians, we were unable to secure a social security card for her. Her husband’s visa didn’t allow spousal equality and she couldn’t get work. They barely scraped by on Domingo’s wages.
But in the fall of 2010, Domingo was hired by the Royal Opera of Stockholm. This was the big break that would now open doors. This would put his name in lights; increase his salary. There was hope of a change in status, a social security card for her, a green card someday for both. Before he left, they paid several thousand dollars for their new visas for the next three years. The future was bright.
Domingo flew to Stockholm and handed over all his paperwork to the consulate there. He thrilled the country with his voice and impressed the king. He was hired for other concerts, applauded and lauded: the reviews were outstanding, and the people loved him. Jobs began lining up throughout Europe and America. It was all good.
In November, Domingo planned a break to return home to share Thanksgiving with friends and the wife he hadn’t seen in two months. Imagine the shock and horror when he learned that his traveling privileges to the United States had been revoked; he could leave Stockholm only if he was returning to Argentina! As his wife and his life were all here in Delaware, panic-stricken calls went out to managers and lawyers. Confusion reigned as they sought answers at the consulate and contacted embassies.
Apparently in 2009 there had been a change in government paperwork instituting higher alerts as America sought out terrorists. But someone somewhere had made a terrible mistake and no one could find the source of the problem. Domingo’s concerts in Stockholm continued, and all we knew was that the man who was supposed to begin a sparkling career back here in the states would be stranded in a foreign country. Furthermore, it might take months to clear this. How would he continue to live in Stockholm when the concerts were over?
Sadly, Domingo was not alone; thousands of scientists, researchers, artists, singers were in the same boat. Given grants and visas, they were all legal, they were all working for the good of the United States, they had all been encouraged to study, perform, research beyond our borders, and when they left, they weren’t allowed back in until their paperwork had been cleared. They were waiting months. The best and brightest who thought they were on their way to becoming citizens were stranded in other countries with families here because the US didn’t have its paperwork in order.
In late December, four years after landing here and with little hope of seeing her husband again, Alexandra gave up on the American dream. She packed up and sent everything to Argentina
In January of 2011, Domingo was granted a visitor’s visa and was allowed back into Delaware for three weeks. Together, he and Alexandra made final plans, contacted artists and friends in Argentina, and secured a furnished apartment there. Familiar names and faces awaited their return.
It seems Domingo from Argentina who had traveled widely was mistaken for a gentleman with the same name who had never left Cuba, had never sung opera, and would have never had letters of operatic employment from a manager. As a result, Domingo lost some of his jobs and is now considered a level 2 security risk; a person of interest who will have to go through a three hour interrogation at the airports whenever he wants to enter or leave the United States. America’s great security risk; an opera singer. Mistaken identity. Casualty of disorganization; victim of time.
As these stranded people continue to wait months for America to track down the information that is “somewhere” so they can get their paperwork in order and come home, we can only shake our heads at the Herculean price of this disorganization. It has cost people their futures and cost families their security and stability. And worse, it is costing America a gifted and talented population that may not be able to wait and that will take its gifts elsewhere.