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Immigration law: A growing area in sports




Last summer, I had the opportunity to watch seven games in four different major league ballparks. In those seven games, I watched some of the best players of our time, such as Edwin Encarnacion, Xander Bogaerts, Jean Segura and Ozzie Albies. Besides being some of the most recognizable names playing in the MLB today, these players all have another thing in common: They are all immigrants. Immigrant participation in North American sports leagues is sizable. Last year, about a quarter of all ballplayers playing in the MLB were born outside the United States. [1] But Major League Baseball is not the only professional North American sport with a sizable percentage of immigrant athletes. Similarly, about a quarter of all NBA players are also immigrants. [2] Even more prevalent, over 75 percent of NHL players were born outside of the United States. [3] This begs the question: Why are so many foreign athletes competing in sports leagues around the United States? Immigrant athletes, individual teams and leagues all benefit from foreign athletes who chose to compete in North American sports leagues. As the United States is home to some of the best sports teams and leagues in the world, it is understandable why so many athletes choose to compete in America. Individual teams are also very interested in scouting and recruiting foreign players due to their unique playing styles and different perspectives they bring to a particular game. On the league side, foreign players and their unique playing styles can attract more fans and interest in the league and sport overall. Immigrant-athlete participation in U.S. sports is prevalent and continuously growing. Like any immigrant, foreign athletes are required to go through the United States’ immigration process and receive a visa before entering and working in the country. Therefore, there is a need for immigration attorneys in the sports industry to help athletes navigate the complex and complicated immigration system in the country. The main immigration law in the United States is the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) which is located in Title 8 of the U.S. Code. Essentially, everything dealing with immigration in the U.S. will be located within the INA. The immigration system in the United States is run by the Department of Homeland Security and three of its agencies: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”), Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”). For the majority of foreign athletes, the main agency they will need to work with is USCIS. USCIS receives and adjudicates various applications for immigration visas and citizenship. In short, a foreign athlete will need to submit an immigration visa application to USCIS. That leaves one question: What is an immigration visa? An immigration visa is a document granted to a foreign national who intends to work and live in the United States. There are many different types of immigration visas, and you probably have heard of some (such as a student visa). Visas are often named for the letter and number the visa corresponds with in the definitions of Title 8. For example, a fiancée visa is known as a “K-1 visa” because the statutory definition for this type of visa is located in 8 U.S.C. §1101(15)(k)(i). The two main forms of visas pertaining to athletes are O visas and P-1 visas. In short, O visas are granted to foreign persons with extraordinary ability in areas such as art, education and athletics. P-1 visas are granted to athletes where either the athlete or the team which the athlete will play for has achieved a level of international success. There are many differences between O and P visas. Usually, an O visa is typically granted to a more amateur athlete who has not yet been signed by a team. A P visa is typically granted to an athlete that is world-renown or an athlete who will be playing for a high-caliber team (usually a team competing in the four major U.S. sports leagues). Another key difference between the two visas concerns the sponsor of the visa. Employment visas usually need to be sponsored by a U.S.-based company or individual. You may have seen something like this before if you have ever filled out an online employment application and the application has a question regarding if you are a foreign applicant and need sponsorship for a visa. In the case of athletes, O visas are often sponsored by agents who are interested in hiring amateur talent. Usually, an agent will see the extraordinary ability of a foreign athlete and want to sign him/her to a representation deal. Since agents and agencies are not usually internationally renowned as required by the P visa application, the agent would often sponsor an O visa application for the athlete. In contrast, teams playing in the four major U.S. sports leagues have achieved a level of international significance and, thus, will likely sponsor a P visa application for the athlete. Once you figure out which visa is needed for a particular athlete, you’ll need to file the corresponding forms, fees and necessary paperwork with USCIS (either via its website, through email or mail depending on the instructions). The process may include interviews, biometric screenings, phone calls, background checks and the like. Unfortunately, USCIS is overburdened with work so the process of obtaining a visa can take months to years. As an attorney, it will be necessary for you to keep on top of your client’s applications and their subsequent status changes. This is just a mere glimpse into the world of immigration law as it pertains to foreign athletes and the sports industry. As you can probably tell, U.S. immigration laws are very complex. If an athlete has an immigration issue, he/she will often seek advice from an outside law firm specializing in sports, entertainment or business immigration. Although, there may be a possibility of an immigration attorney being hired to an in-house position if the growth of foreign athletes in U.S. sports continues. For example, entertainment companies like Disney and Netflix have immigration attorneys working in-house due to the overwhelming amount of immigration law work in the entertainment industry. Overall, immigration law is a unique and growing area in the sports industry that should not be overlooked by aspiring sports lawyers.


_________________ [1] More than 250 international players on opening day rosters, Reuters (March 29, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-baseball-mlb-players/more-than-250-international-players-on-opening-day-rosters-idUSKCN1RA2OT.

[2] Matt Modderno, The NBA has a Greater International Make up than ever before, FanSided, https://sircharlesincharge.com/2019/11/10/nba-more-international-players/.

[3] Active NHL Player Totals by Nationality, Quant Hockey, https://www.quanthockey.com/nhl/nationality-totals/active-nhl-players-career-stats.html.

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