When violinist Elina Lev applied to get her green card she figured it would be a routine process. After all, she already had a temporary work permit and she was employed. At the time, she held a tenured position with the Charlotte Symphony as the associate concertmaster, and as far as she could see there didn’t seem to be anything that could jeopardize her application.

Elina Lev, currently the acting assistant concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, joins the San Francisco Symphony in August.

What she didn’t expect was that this was going to be the start of a multi-year nightmare. Her first application for a green card was denied outright.  Her second application, which she filed in December 2012, was also denied on the grounds that the Charlotte Symphony wasn’t prestigious enough and her position there didn’t meet the criteria for artists under the guidelines established by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

“How do you explain the importance of an orchestra to an agency?” said the 28-year-old Lev in an interview with Reichel Recommends. “The Charlotte Symphony is the biggest orchestra in the Carolinas and it plays a major role in the arts scene there. It is an important orchestra.”

Despite her ongoing struggle with the USCIS to obtain a green card, Lev has continued to practice her art. She left the Charlotte Symphony at the end of the 2012-13 season to join the Utah Symphony as tenure track section first violin. She was granted tenure in May of this year and then promoted to acting assistant concertmaster. During her time in Salt Lake City, Lev auditioned with the San Francisco Symphony, winning a position as a member of the second violin section. She joins her new orchestra on Aug. 31.

When her second application was eventually denied last March, Lev hired a new attorney who filed an appeal. This month, after a four-year battle, Lev was given an O-1 artist visa. This is a visa granted to an “individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements,” according to the USCIS website.

Lev is happy with the visa, but there is one drawback with it. An O-1 visa is only valid for three years. ”Mine expires on July 14, 2017,” she said. “After the first three years you can renew year to year, but it can be denied at any point. There are no guarantees, even if you have a tenured position.”

The St. Petersburg, Russia, native came to the United States on a student visa in 2006, when she was 20, to study with renowned violinist Vadim Gluzman at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. “I started there in my junior year,” she said.

It was through her father that Lev became acquainted with Gluzman. “My father was a cellist in the St. Petersburg Philharmonic,” she said. “In 2005 they went on a tour to Estonia and Vadim was the soloist. After their return my father said Vadim’s was the most incredible violin playing he had heard in decades. His talent and musicality were amazing.” So Lev contacted Gluzman who said he’d be thrilled to have her as his student. “He was already teaching at [the Chicago College of Performing Arts]. I applied and was given a full scholarship.”

Lev said this was an important turning point in her life and career. “Vadim is more than a teacher. He is like a second father to me.” Lev’s own father passed away in 2011.

The uncertainty of her resident status has left its toll on Lev, emotionally and financially. “This has given me a good deal of anxiety,” she admitted. “I am full of hope, but I can’t be confident in anything I have no control over. This is something I hope no one else has to go through.”

She hopes that with a new attorney handling her case she can finally obtain her green card before her artist visa expires in three years. “I try to be optimistic,” Lev said. “I look forward to the day I can become a permanent resident and then a citizen.”

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About Edward Reichel

Edward Reichel, author, writer and composer, has been covering the classical music scene in Utah since 1997. For many years he served as the primary music critic for the Deseret News. He has also written for a number of publications, including Chamber Music Magazine, OPERA Magazine, 15 Bytes, Park City Magazine and Salt Lake Magazine. He holds a Ph.D. in composition from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He can be reached at Reichel Recommends is also on Twitter @ReichelArts.

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