Caught in a visa ordeal

Times Staff Writer

When Ahmet Ahmet applied for a work visa six years ago, the U.S. government deemed him a man of “extraordinary ability.”

He went on to design the movie trailer for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and the titles for Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” He oversaw production of Tiger Woods’ Nike ad in which a golf ball explodes into a brilliant red splatter across the television screen.

But Ahmet’s Hollywood career has faded to black. In the summer of 2005, the 48-year-old Cypriot of Turkish descent and his family took a two-week vacation in Britain. Their request to reenter the United States took four months to process while U.S. officials conducted a security review for reasons that were never explained.

Confident that he was safe to travel, Ahmet returned to London this year with his wife, Meral Guler, and their 12-year-old daughter, Mia, to visit his mother, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. When he went to the U.S. Embassy to get his visa approved to return to Los Angeles, he was told that he needed another security clearance. That was more than four months ago.


Ahmet and his family are living out of suitcases in a London apartment with no idea when he will return to his job as creative director at Imaginary Forces, an award-winning Los Angeles-based producer of films, trailers and commercials.

Ahmet said he didn’t know what the government was investigating or why.

“I’m not a terrorist,” said Ahmet, who spends his days with his ailing mother and his nights at a computer, trying to keep his home and work life in America from crumbling. “I’ve never had any kind of extreme political views. I’m a creative director in a creative company in Hollywood.”

Ahmet’s colleagues at Imaginary Forces, working with Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) and British Labor Party lawmaker Kate Hoey, have been unable to get any information from the U.S. government.


“It just seems so arbitrary,” said Peter Frankfurt, co-founder of Imaginary Forces, who called Ahmet an innocent victim of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. “You think that because this is America, these things shouldn’t happen.”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government has required most foreigners entering the United States to be interviewed and fingerprinted. If visitors’ names or fingerprints match those on the government’s extensive security watch list, their files are sent to Washington for further review.

Entertainment industry executives and immigration attorneys say these rigid measures keep many innocent people from entering or working in the country. They say they know of other performers and foreign-born executives who have had visa requests rejected without an explanation. Like Ahmet, others have been trapped overseas awaiting clearance.

Executives and attorneys say border control efforts are making it difficult for U.S. multinationals to attract and keep talented foreigners.

“He is not the only foreign citizen I know of in the film industry encountering this kind of problem,” said director John Sayles, who worked with Ahmet on his political satire “Silver City.” “The ‘special review’ business is typical of the present administration -- lots of show and very little substance.”

Administration officials wouldn’t discuss individual cases. But Tony Edson, a deputy assistant secretary of State in charge of visa services, said fewer than 3% of the nearly 8 million people who apply for visas get the extra security checks, and it would be “very unusual” for a visa applicant to wait five months for approval. He said he couldn’t speculate on what might trigger such a delay.

“The process is not, and ultimately can’t be, completely transparent,” he said. “You’re talking about security screening against intelligence and law enforcement information.”

On Aug. 17, Marie Damour, chief of the visa section at the U.S. Embassy in London, wrote Hoey, the British lawmaker, saying the interviewing officer was unable to “exclude” Ahmet as a match to “several ineligible individuals” and had determined that “new information” had developed since the last security clearance. She said she had sent a note to Washington requesting “expedited processing” of his security review.


Four months later, the only information Ahmet has received from the U.S. government are computer-generated e-mails telling him he will be contacted when there is more information.

There are millions of names on the government’s list of people who are banned from entering the country. Some are suspected terrorists; others have criminal records. Ahmet, or some version of it, is a common name in the Middle East and parts of South Asia. It crops up at least half a dozen times on the State Department’s published list of terrorists.

But Ahmet is no stranger to the U.S. government. When he applied for a job at Imaginary Forces in 2000, he was required to submit reams of information to immigration authorities. Born in Cyprus in 1958, long before the island was divided into Turkish and Greek sectors, he lived in Britain from childhood. After graduating from Staffordshire University with a fine arts degree, he worked at the British Broadcasting Corp. for 14 years.

To qualify for an O1 visa, which is given to individuals of “extraordinary ability,” he had to demonstrate a history of professional achievement, including recognition by the Royal Television Society and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Since joining Imaginary Forces, he has worked on “Harry Potter,” Lawrence Kasdan’s “Dreamcatcher” and advertisements for Ford and Honda.

Imaginary Forces has agreed to pay Ahmet’s salary and housing costs in London. But his home in Pacific Palisades has been effectively abandoned, bills are piling up and creditors are unhappy, he says. Mia has already missed three months at a new middle school.

Although Ahmet and his wife, a documentary filmmaker, are trying to home-school their daughter, many books used in her classes are not available in Britain.

The visa problems have also been costly for Imaginary Forces, an 80-person firm launched by Frankfurt and Chip Houghton in 1996. Ahmet was one of the company’s top art directors, overseeing projects worth $4.5 million in 2004 and 2005, said Amy Morgenstern, the company’s chief financial officer.

His colleagues, who are based in Los Angeles and New York, have tried to keep Ahmet in the loop via phone and e-mail. But the firm has had to turn down five to 10 contracts because it lacked the creative leadership, Morgenstern said. Executives estimated that they had lost $1 million in potential billings because of Ahmet’s absence.


Ahmet says he spends his days with his mother, who he said is slowly slipping away. He has not told her about his immigration problems, fearful that it would worsen her condition. Mia constantly asks when they can go home. She has already missed Halloween, her favorite holiday.

As the months drag on, Ahmet’s legal situation becomes more complicated. His work visa expired this month, so his attorney filed for a renewal. He had also applied for permanent residency but is still in the early stages of that process, which can take years.

With no assurances of when, or if, he will be permitted to return to the United States, Ahmet wonders whether he should find a new job and resettle his family in Britain, where he still has friends in the industry. But he won’t give up until he gets some answers.

“I really feel like I’ve been accused of something,” he said. “I can’t just walk away from it.”