Polish-born cellist and USC Thornton School of Music instructor Marek Szpakiewicz MM ’01, DMA ’08 has won his fight to stay and perform in the United States, after a long immigration struggle.
On March 6, rallied on by such luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano, and Oscar-winning film composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, the cellist finally earned permanent residency from the U.S. government as an “Extraordinary Ability Artist.” The title means he has “sustained national or international acclaim and (his) achievements have been recognized” in his field, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Twelve lawyers had refused to take his complex case, believing the cellist had little to no chance of winning.
Szpakiewicz, who was a student of the late Eleonore Schoenfeld and is currently an instructor in violoncello and completing his doctorate of music, applied for a petition to become a U.S. permanent resident in September 2005, compiling a 4-inch-thick portfolio of supporting documents and 32 letters of recommendation from renowned musicians. His wife, Keiko Mori MA’00 and MPW ’07, prepared the petition with assistance from an immigration lawyer.
Szpakiewicz said he does not know how many of the “Extraordinary Ability Artist” titles are granted, but says there are very few. “It’s a very high standard, and the U.S. government is very selective about it, even more so since 9/11.” He said that “it feels for me like a personal achievement and victory.” Now he and his wife, who is Japanese, can travel freely. “The world now becomes a big home,” he said.
Other talented immigrants have not been so lucky. In a well-publicized case, celebrated Chinese writer Yiyun Li, a Random House author who has written for The New Yorker and Paris Review magazines, lost her immigration case because her submission did not prove she was “one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.”
In the Szpakiewicz case, immigration authorities approved his petition in only five months in February 2006, after almost two years of preparation.
After the approval of the petition, however, he had to wait more than two years for his permanent resident status because of a backlog of FBI background checks that grew after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although 99 percent of FBI background checks are completed within six months, nearly 320,000 people were waiting for theirs as of August 2007. That number included more than 61,000 who had been waiting for more than two years, including Szpakiewicz.
Szpakiewicz sued USCIS, Homeland Security and other government agencies in July 2007, joining more than 4,100 lawsuits filed against U.S. immigration in that year alone. The suit asked a federal judge to force immigration officials to adjudicate the case. Before the final court hearing date, however, the immigration service granted Szpakiewicz permanent residency.
Szpakiewicz will be performing a recital on Saturday, March 22 at 5 p.m. at USC’s United University Church as part of his doctoral work.