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It's a Small World: The story of the 'Disney visa'

Photo by Bart Hanlon/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Ever hear of a "Disney visa?" If you haven't, a fascinating article in the Florida Law Review explains that and more about what it terms "The Wonderful World of Disney Visas."

And what a world it is.

An excerpt from the abstract, posted this morning in the ImmigrationProf Blog, sets it up:

International workers play an important role in perpetuating the carefully crafted fantasy that to visit the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida is to be transported to far-off destinations around the globe.

This article examines how Disney has filled its need for these workers in two ways. For one, Disney has used a blend of chutzpah and ingenuity to forge new federal law establishing the Q visa. Additionally, Disney has dexterously used the existing J visa, along with an on-resort academic program, to bring international workers to Florida as students.

Using humorously Disney-esque chapter titles, author and University of North Dakota law professor Kit Johnson tells the story of how Disney essentially created a visa category to fill its casting needs. From the article:
The Q visa is the cornerstone of international hiring at Walt Disney World. The visa’s parentage is unquestioned—it is commonly known as “the Disney visa”—but the history of how the visa came to be has never been fully explored.

...The story of the Q visa is nothing short of a fairy tale—for Disney. For those seeking immigration reform, it may be more of a cautionary tale about the ability of an unusually skilled advocate to mold the law in order to benefit a single entity.

Now cue the "It's a Small World" theme song:
Before the Epcot theme park opened in 1982, Disney knew that it wanted cast members in the Epcot World Showcase area of the park to be from the countries represented in the showcase. The showcase houses pavilions representing eleven countries: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada. The pavilions are situated in an arc around the park’s forty-acre lagoon, where they are said to exist “side by side in exemplary amity.”

The architecture of each pavilion either replicates a genuine building or copies the “vernacular style” of the country represented. Each pavilion is meant to exhibit a “microcosm” of the country represented and includes opportunities to experience “native food, entertainment, culture, and arts and crafts.” The pavilions are “designed to create the impression that the guest is in a foreign country and is surrounded by people in that country.”

Disney executives initially responded to the call for “authentic staffing” at the World Showcase by establishing the World Showcase Fellowship Program. However, this was a small program that would have intermingled five to ten fellowship recipients among the hundreds of cast members stationed at certain areas of the pavilions. As a result, “guests would have [had] to be very, very lucky to see a Fellowship Representative. Or they would have [had] to ask to meet one.”

According to the article, Walt Disney World’s casting director Duncan Dickson worked with the United States Information Agency to obtain a new J visa designation for “cultural ambassadors” to come and work as cast members in the Epcot World Showcase, resulting in "100% staffing from the countries represented."

But by the late 1980, problems with the J visa, intended as a cultural exchange visa, and investigations into its abuse threw a wrench into that program. Johnson writes that Disney executives then worked with immigration attorneys, including famed attorney Ira Kurzban, to draft "an entirely new visa:"

Together they crafted a carefully worded and very narrow piece of legislation—one that would meet the needs of the Epcot World Showcase without creating a generalized work visa. The visa they drafted applied only to “international cultural exchange program[s]” in which the international worker would, as part of his employment, share “the history, culture, and traditions of the country of the alien’s nationality.” The legislation was intentionally narrow so as to meet Disney’s needs without qualifying a “wide range of other activities . . . as cultural exchanges.”

Disney then drafted the support of legislators in Florida and California, the article continues, as well as that of Bruce Morrison, a Connecticut congressman who at the time was chair of the House immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee:
The congressman approached this period of immigration reform from the “basic principle that the more people who will get something from a piece of legislation, the broader the support will be.” He sought to “institutionalize” what constituents liked about immigration, hoping to “logroll his way to a majority with an omnibus bill built around a coalition of intense, pro- immigration special interests.”

Detractors described this period of legislative reform as “a circus” or a “feeding frenzy at the trough,” with special interests claiming nearly every section of the developing legislation. Morrison’s response? “For those academics who never passed any legislation, let them do better. . . . This is legislation that people told me never would pass. . . . We did it by understanding the politics of immigration better.”

The visa plan was approved s part of a larger immigration reform package:
It was November 29, 1990, when the Immigration Act of 1990, the “most significant reform of the legal immigration system of the United States in nearly 40 years,” became law.

Dickson’s proposal was codified in the Act as the Q visa and was quickly dubbed the “Disney visa” by Ira Kurzban.

While cultural exchange is still a component of the Q visa, it is a work-based visa, unlike the study-based J visa. The official title of Walt Disney World’s Q visa-based program is the "Disney Cultural Representative Program" and, according to the piece, using these foreign workers saves Disney money:
Cultural representatives are uniquely affordable. While they are covered by the resort’s collective bargaining agreement,130 their salaries remain low when compared to union workers because of their short length of stay. Their pay starts at slightly above the minimum wage.

There are also tax benefits in hiring international cultural representatives. Such workers are exempt from FICA taxes, which would otherwise cost Disney 7.65% of the workers’ total earnings.

The author calculates from reported wage disparities that the company's "savings from using Q visa workers would be $343,520 per week and $17,863,040 per year in 2011 dollars."

The article has many more details, including how Disney still employs J visas for cast members as part of its international college program. It's a great behind-the-scenes peek into the inner immigration workings of the Happiest Place on Earth.