The P visa allows the majority of international players to participate in professional sports in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues non-immigrant visas O, P, and H-2B for athletes and others to be employed in the United States. Some very elite athletes may qualify for the O visa, which is used for individuals who possess ‘extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics’ such as Olympic medal winners, while average professional athletes in the major leagues can get by with a P. This visa is commonly used by major league sports such as the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS, to import foreign players.
For example, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was signed by the Yankees for a seven-year, $155 million contract at age 25. The Yankees filed a petition for Tanaka’s P visa, and wanted rush approval of his case so that the pitcher could make it to Spring Training and asked the office of New York Senator Chuck Schumer to help expedite the process. Athletes must show USCIS a contract in an individual sport “commensurate with international recognition in that sport.” Once a player has a P visa they usually apply for an adjustment of status to obtain a green card. After five years US Citizenship is possible. (Tewary, 2014)
MLS teams regularly obtain green cards for their players in order to move them out of limited international roster slots. “For the first time in MLS history, more than 50% of the league’s players were born outside the United States. There are 160 international roster spots divided among the 20 clubs in MLS, with each slot being a tradable asset. For example, Republic of Ireland National Team captain Robbie Keane has a U.S. green card, as do Aurélien Collin, Paulo Nagamura, and many others.” (Thomas, 2015) For coaches, league officials, or referees a supporting P1-S visa may be available as aliens coming to the US to work as essential support personnel for P athletes and teams.
Sports like soccer have many foreign players but NFL football has relatively few. However, the emerging trend is for increased foreign participation in American football. The case of New Zealand rugby player Paul Lasike is a curious example of this trend. “After his graduation, the Arizona Cardinals initially picked up Lasike, and employed him on the basis of a P visa. This season, he was signed by the Chicago Bears as a member of the practice squad.” (Tewary, 2014) Unfortunately, the trade ran into visa trouble. Apparently, the Bears may not have been aware of the rule that an NFL team acquiring a player from another team typically needs to file a new P petition with USCIS to support the player transfer. The Bears released Lasike because of this P visa problem and quickly reinstated him after the P visa was successfully transferred last month.
Tewary, A. (2014) Athlete’s Visa – the Sports and Immigration Blog, Retrieved From http://athletesvisa.blogspot.com/search/label/P-1%20visa
Thomas, W. (2015, Sep 14) MLS Allure: Why Wages Are Only Part of the Story, American Soccer Now, Retrieved From http://americansoccernow.com/articles/mls-allure-why-wages-are-only-part-of-the-story
Dr. Rob Hudson is Associate Professor JD, MLIS, Ed.S, at the United States Sports Academy and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org