Trump's Immigration Ban Wreaks Havoc in Hollywood: Foreign Stars and Casting Impacted

As stars speak out in opposition to travel restrictions, the effects on TV's pilot season are already being felt. Warns one lawyer: "Production companies are vetting talent."

Hollywood was built by immigrants — mostly Jews whose families emigrated from eastern Europe — and long has thrived on the infusion of fresh talent and consumers from around the world. So the industry is struggling to grapple with the impact of President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order temporarily banning immigration to the U.S. from seven mostly-Muslim countries — even as most entertainment moguls have remained silent on the issue.

The ban, which impacts most immigrants and visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, came just as the TV industry's pilot season was getting underway. The annual production crunch sees hundreds of foreign actors travel to Los Angeles and New York for meetings and casting sessions, often on expedited visas. Studios and talent agencies declined to comment, but privately, many say they are evaluating how the so-called Muslim ban and expected visa delays for all foreign nationals will impact decisions on pilots and series pickups this spring. "Production companies are vetting talent to see if they could face a possible bar," says Richard Tashjian, an immigration attorney who works with Sony and CAA. "Past that, there is no contingency plan if the bar is expanded."

In the meantime, creatives are speaking out. Film and TV writer-producers Joss Whedon, Dan Harmon and Danny Zuker were part of a thousands-strong protest of the ban at LAX on Jan. 28. Actress Cynthia Nixon joined a similar demonstration at JFK in New York. The SAG Awards on Jan. 29 became a pulpit for stars including Moonlight's Mahershala Ali, Veep's Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stranger Things' David Harbour to speak out. Oscar-nominated Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman) and his star Taraneh Alidoosti announced Jan. 29 they will boycott the Academy Awards. Marcel Mettelsiefen, director of the Oscar-nominated doc short Watani: My Homeland, about a Syrian family, will attend the Oscars but says of Trump's ban, "This is very dangerous." Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara were planning on taking two subjects of their Oscar-nominated documentary short The White Helmets — about rescue workers in Syria — as their guests to the Feb. 26 ceremony. Due to the Trump ban, the subjects can't attend.

The ban also affects anyone already in the U.S. on a temporary visa who leaves. So those planning to promote a film internationally may want to skip the tour. And Trump has asked his administration for a list of countries that fail to turn over requested immigration information. Those face a presidential proclamation barring the entry of their foreign nationals.

Immigration attorney Joe Adams says the looming threat that people from Pakistan, Indonesia or Egypt soon could be banned may make studios hesitant to hire talent from those nations. "Often a production will be focused on a key member of the above-the-line talent," notes Adams. "If that person is now no longer allowed in the U.S., or if you think maybe in the future that person may not be allowed — if with the stroke of a pen you can bar people — what does that do to a production?"

Immigration attorneys also are expecting increased scrutiny on certain types of visas, including those used most often by the film, TV and music industries. Entertainers typically use O visas, groups use P visas and nontalent (such as foreign financiers traveling for business meetings) use B visas. Those visas usually are sponsored by talent agencies, networks or studios with whom the person works.

Tashjian says there already has been a two- to three-week lag in receiving an O-1 visa for those applying in London. "I had a production that decided to move from the U.S. to Canada because of visa delays," he says. "So we've lost 100 U.S. crew jobs in New Orleans."

The recent suspension of the visa interview waiver program only will exacerbate that problem, he says. "Previously, in-person interviews were waived for a wide variety of visa renewals," adds Tashjian. "Now, all those seeking a non-immigrant visa will need to have an interview. This will cause backlogs in processing visas as embassies and consulates will need to adjust staffing."

For those in need of a quick turnaround, immigration attorney David Hirson recommends contacting local consulates for an expedited appointment. "They take one or two appointments a day, which they don't talk about," he says. Make the case clearly and concisely, he adds, limiting the arguments for urgency to a short list of bullet points.

Adams says at least one client, a British company that employs talent from across the globe, is thinking about abandoning its U.S. offices. "The world market for the top talent is competitive," he says. "If we can't attract top talent, we lose as a country."

Meanwhile, America's loss could be Canada's gain. The country's tech companies are lobbying to assist visa-seekers who can't get into the U.S. in an effort to poach talent — and it wouldn't be surprising if Hollywood's neighbors to the north decided to do the same. But while Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and other technology companies have voiced strong opposition to Trump's immigration policies, most top entertainment execs have remained silent, preferring to speak via a bland MPAA statement. The one exception is 21st Century Fox, whose leaders, James and Lachlan Murdoch, issued a companywide memo Jan. 30 saying they value "the unique perspective offered by our many people who came to the U.S. in search of the opportunity for unfettered self-expression."

At the same time, Disney CEO Bob Iger, a member of Trump's strategic and policy advisory committee, has been criticized by corporate watchdog group SumUp for failing to speak out against the immigrant ban and being "complicit in the Trump administration's cruel and un-American policies."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.