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How Can An Individual Athlete Obtain A "Green Card?"

A green card is the document issued by the federal government that signifies that one has acquired lawful permanent resident status which allows the person to reside permanently in the U.S., subject to restrictions and cancellation primarily tied to criminal behavior. While one must renew the card to update it every 10 years, this is normally a formality. After 5 years as a lawful permanent resident, one can apply for U.S. citizenship (3 years if the card was obtained through marriage to a U.S. citizen).

I am often asked by individual athletes in many sports how they can obtain a green card. While they can keep renewing their temporary P-1 athlete visas for up to 5 years throughout their career, after residing in the U.S. for years and putting down roots here, many want something more secure than a temporary visa. After all, athletic careers can swing in different directions throughout a lifetime due to injury or changes to the body through the natural aging process.

The primary method by which a golfer could obtain a green card is through the filing of a petition as an athlete of “extraordinary ability” with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). It is not an easy standard to meet. The regulations state that extraordinary ability is reserved for that small percentage of individuals who have risen to the very top of their sport. I handled the first major case defining this standard, Matter of Price, in 1992. Based on the record of that case at the time, the primary appeals office of immigration found that Nick Price ranked 7th in earnings on the PGA TOUR out of over 10,000 professional golfers worldwide and over 600 professional golfers on various tours in the U.S. That put Mr. Price in the top .07% of professional golfers worldwide! While all athletes in this category need not be ranked that high, it is illustrative of how high the standard is.

This leads to two very important considerations:

  1. One must do a careful and honest assessment of their personal abilities and qualifications under the specific criteria listed below before rushing into filing in this category.

  2. One must “strike while the fire is hot.” In other words, if you are having an exceptional year, it is probably good to file then rather than assume you will continue to perform at that level year after year.

Application Process

The application for U.S. residency is a two-part process. First, the golfer must file an immigrant visa petition which clearly establishes that he or she is an individual of extraordinary ability. Second, he or she and other members of the family file applications to convert their status to that of lawful permanent residents. This second step can be completed through USCIS offices in the United States or at an American Consulate in the golfer’s home country. Both methods have different advantages and disadvantages which are discussed below.

Step One: Immigrant Visa Petition:

The regulations require a petition for a golfer of extraordinary ability to be accompanied by evidence that he or she has sustained national or international acclaim and that his or her achievements have been recognized in the sport of golf. The regulations further provide that this can be accomplished by showing evidence that the golfer has won a single major, international award (presumably a victory at any of the Majors), or at least three of the following:

  1. Documentation of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards (presumably any professional tournament);

  2. Documentation of membership in associations which require outstanding achievements of their members (while most would assume that membership on the PGA TOUR or LPGA Tour would qualify to meet this criterion, USCIS takes the position that membership is more a matter of qualifying for the TOUR rather than being selected based on achievements);

  3. Published material in professional or major trade publications (articles about the golfer are normally readily available on the internet);

  4. Evidence of the person’s participation as a judge of others in the field (many times we use evidence of golf clinics presented by the golfer in which he or she judges and evaluates participants to meet this criteria);

  5. Evidence of the person’s original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic or business contributions of major significance (probably not applicable to golfers);

  6. Evidence of the person’s authorship of scholarly articles in the field (may be applicable if the golfer has written a book or series of articles on golf);

  7. Evidence of the display of the person’s work in the field at artistic exhibitions or showcases (USCIS takes the position that this applies to creative arts, not athletic events);

  8. Evidence that the person has performed in a leading or a critical role for organizations or establishments having distinguished reputations (arguably competition in PGA TOUR or LPGA Tour events and/or international team events such as the Ryder or Solheim Cup);

  9. Evidence that the person has commanded a high salary in relation to others in the field (position on current or career money list may be relevant);

  10. Evidence of commercial successes in the arts (not applicable to golfers).

Obviously, all of these categories do not apply to a professional golfer. However, it is not unreasonable for a typical golfer on the PGA TOUR or LPGA Tour to be able to present evidence that he or she qualifies in categories (1), (3), (4), (8) and (9).

Step Two: Conversion to Permanent Residence:

One option for filing the second step is for the golfer and his or her family to submit applications for permanent residence directly to the USCIS office in the U.S. The primary advantages to filing this step of the process in the U.S. include: (1) The golfer and his or her family remain in the U.S. while the application is being reviewed. If any questions or further inquiry is required, the golfer and his or her representative retain control of the situation and there is no risk of being inconvenienced by delays outside of the country; and (2) the application for residence can be simultaneously filed with the immigrant visa petition so that both are approved at the same time. Although the current Administration now requires all applicants in this second step to be interviewed at a local office, thus delaying the process, the golfer and his or her family can be afforded travel permits to minimize inconvenience during this period.

The other option for filing the second step is for the golfer and his or her family to process immigrant visa applications through the American Consulate in their home country. The disadvantage to completing the second stage of the process through an American Consulate lies in the fact that one must first wait for the immigrant visa petition to be approved by the USCIS and then forwarded to the U.S. State Department National Visa Center and ultimately to an American Consulate abroad where the golfer and his or her family would appear for an appointment.

Frequently, the choice whether to process through the USCIS in the U.S. or the American Consulate abroad is determined by where the golfer has been residing most of the time – in the U.S. or abroad. If he or she has been residing abroad, it normally is more convenient to complete the process and the application through the American Consulate in his or her home country.

* * *

In conclusion, professional golfers are afforded an expedited “green card” procedure which is not available to most immigrants by virtue of the fact that golfers competing on the PGA TOUR or LPGA Tour can be considered to be among the top athletes in the world. Note that the application process can be time consuming and while the case is being processed, the golfer’s travel can be restricted for at least 90 days while a travel permit is being issued. For this reason, the actual filing date needs to be carefully coordinated with the golfer’s schedule.

*Steven M. Ladik is past President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and represents numerous professional golfers on the LPGA Tour and PGA TOUR. He also serves as the outside Immigration Counsel to the National Football League. He is a Partner at Seltzer Chadwick Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

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