How Immigration Got It Wrong For Individual Athletes


For decades, aspiring young foreign athletes who excelled in individual sports and had just graduated from a U.S. university would obtain P-1 visas for internationally recognized athletes to compete as professional athletes on a specific tour in the U.S. Many were highly ranked amateurs with experience playing at their university and in international competitions on their national team. The 1994 regulations of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) only require you to show you meet 2 of 7 possible evidentiary criteria to establish you are “internationally recognized”. Interestingly, some of these include significant participation with a U.S. university, competition on a national team, achievement of a significant award and a ranking in the sport, among others. Thus, many excellent college athletes could readily establish they were “internationally recognized."

From the time this visa category was created in 1990 and the regulations were promulgated in 1994, these young athletes would apply for and receive P-1 visas immediately after graduation when they turned pro. Due to tour logistics making it impossible to immediately have eligibility on a major tour, they would hone their skills on lesser tours before qualifying for a major tour.

Then suddenly in 2014, an existing regulation that had never been applied raised its ugly head and UCIS adjudicators began applying it in a manner that resulted in the denial of P-1 filings for recent graduates in this situation. The regulation said that not only must you be an internationally recognized athlete under the above-referenced criteria, but also that:

The athlete or team must be coming to the United States to participate in an athletic competition that has a distinguished reputation and which requires participation of an athlete or athletic team that has an international reputation [emphasis supplied].

Although the Department of State has no such requirement in its regulations and the law itself imposed no such requirement when enacted in 1990 and still has no such requirement, nevertheless, USCIS began applying it strictly in 2014 in a way that prevented these athletes from receiving P-1 visas.

Shortly after the 1994 regulations were issued, the leading legal treatise in the field criticized this regulation saying:

Moreover, the services to be performed must require an “internationally recognized” athlete or athletic team, which athlete or team must be coming t