The publisher of a Manhattan news site is stuck on the other side of the pond after his visa renewal was denied because he had to scale down his business in the pandemic, going from physical print to online only.
A U.S. State Department official notified Briton Phil O’Brien, the founder of W42ST, on December 1 that his renewal for a E-2 work visa had been rejected because the publication was a “marginal” business. The E-2 “investor visa” classification allows certain nonimmigrants to work in the country in exchange for investing “a substantial amount of capital in a U.S. business.”
O’Brien, 60, launched W42ST as a hyperlocal magazine in 2014, focusing on the news and happenings around his new home, Hell’s Kitchen.
The native of Liverpool, England, has been in New York City since late 2012, when he moved here looking for new opportunities and a fresh start after a career in the United Kingdom as a photographer and owner of a photo distribution business, he told THE CITY.
He always loved the city when he traveled on business trips and had wondered, “Could I actually live there?” he said. “Let’s give New York a go.”
When he moved to an apartment on West 42nd Street near the West Side Highway, O’Brien became fascinated with the changes roiling the historic neighborhood, with glistening glass condos popping up around the brick apartment buildings and older shops, he said.
O’Brien soon fell in love with the neighborhood, even if some of his friends didn’t see the appeal.
“One of my friends in Brooklyn said, ‘why do you want to live there, it’s cold in the winter, it’s far from the subway,’” he recalled.
“And I was like, ‘F–ck you, this is my neighborhood now!’”
Since launching W42ST, O’Brien has published 60 monthly print magazine editions over five years, but when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New York, he switched to an online-only model amid a decline in print advertising revenue.
As other local businesses stayed open to serve his neighbors, he thought: “What skill can I give to keep people involved during this really tough time?”
To that end, the site shared COVID updates as well as profiles showing how the pandemic was affecting the neighborhood and the people living there. (In the past, W42ST has also syndicated some of THE CITY’s articles under our free republishing agreement.)
Attempt to Renew
Following COVID-related delays on traveling — and the expiration of his E2 work visa — he returned to the United Kingdom in October to renew the visa, bringing along a nearly 1,000-page application that reviews his bank accounts and businesses in the United States, he said. An E2 visa allows entrepreneurs and investors to launch businesses in the United States, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
O’Brien finally received an interview at the U.S. Embassy on Dec. 1, he said.
It lasted five minutes and included four questions, according to O’Brien, with all of them focused on the decrease of his publication’s sales, why profits in 2020 and 2021 were smaller than in past years, and why he shut down the print edition.
The U.S Embassy interviewer then pushed a piece of paper under the glass partition, notifying O’Brien that his application had been denied. He was told there was nothing he could do to change it, and was barred from returning to New York City, he said.
The official reason for the denial was that W42ST was a “marginal” business, he said.
“I was just dumbstruck. It was an initial shock.”
A State Department spokesperson told THE CITY they could not discuss an individual’s visa case because it is “confidential.”
“Whenever an individual applies for a U.S. visa, the applicant must demonstrate that they qualify for the visa classification sought,” the spokesperson said. “Consular officers review the facts of each individual case and determine whether the applicant is eligible for that visa based on U.S. law.”
Deborah Lee, the deputy attorney-in-charge for the immigration law unit at The Legal Aid Society, said the situation isn’t uncommon.
“That kind of scenario where the immigrant … feels they have submitted sufficient evidence but for whatever reason it is not deemed sufficient — it happens,” Lee told THE CITY.
‘Engagement and Community Over Profits’
O’Brien said his own immigration lawyer was shocked, and since sharing the issue in W42ST’s newsletter he’s received dozens of letters of support from readers and elected officials.
The website — manned by O’Brien, a staff writer, and a social media editor – has created a “thriving community of readers and contributors,” according to City Councilmember Erik Bottcher (D-Manhattan), who wrote a letter this week to the U.S. Embassy in support of O’Brien’s visa application.
Bottcher pointed to the site’s reporting on Chez Napoleon, a French restaurant that took more than a year to reopen due to an issue with Con Edison. The site has also continued to report on the death of Julio Ramirez, who was found dead in the back of a cab on April 21 after hanging out at Hell’s Kitchen bars.
“While many larger outlets have returned to the story now that the case appears to be part of a larger pattern, Mr. O’Brien and W42ST never stopped covering this unsolved death of a young LGBTQ+ person of color,” Bottcher wrote. “It’s clear that Mr. O’Brien and W42ST are a successful model of local journalism, and value engagement and community over profits.”
O’Brien and some of his readers were most outraged by the swift determination by the embassy that W42ST was a “marginal” business.
“The newsletter/magazine is the heartbeat of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City and keeps me informed with what is going on in MY neighborhood,” Georga Osborne, a reader who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, wrote in a letter of support sent to the visa office and shared with THE CITY.
“The service Phil provides with the publication is far from marginal and it is very important to me,” Osborne added.
O’Brien’s lawyer submitted an appeal, which went for a “supervisory review” on Tuesday. In the best-case scenario, O’Brien would get approved after another interview and come back to New York City, he said — where his girlfriend of several years, Gwen, still lives.
While he’s enjoyed the later start to his day while sending out his newsletter from England, he’s still looking forward to coming home to New York — which could be between two weeks and six months if the visa appeal is eventually approved, he said.
He’s approaching the ordeal with the objectiveness of a reporter: “We’ll get through this, and let’s keep going,” he said.
“Every journalism project is difficult and it is certainly an enjoyable ride.”