The Current Immigration Environment For Professional Athletes


The current Administration’s emphasis on the “Buy American, Hire American” policy has had a dramatic negative impact on the review of many business visas, with some experiencing sharply increased denial rates in excess 30%. While this policy would appear to have little relevance to the admission of foreign professional athletes coming to the U.S. to provide entertainment to U.S. fans, the Administration’s actions tell a different story. Even though the policy has little relevance to athletic occupations since it is hard to argue that foreign born professional athletes are taking jobs from American athletes, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) has taken an unduly strict approach to these cases.

This approach is reflected in the issuance of innumerable Requests for Evidence (“RFEs”) in virtually all individual P-1 athlete visa filings before a case can be adjudicated to completion - either approval or denial. A Request for Evidence is a lengthy “kickback” wherein USCIS declines to adjudicate the application until the petitioning sponsor, agent, league or tour responds to follow up questions from the agency.

Although these RFE’s appear to be based on the agency’s regulations, they are often based on incorrect interpretations of the regulations and agency guidance which either reflect ignorance of the law, a lack of training in the agency or worse, the appearance of actual intent to reduce the numbers of individuals qualifying for these visas.

For instance, according to the agency’s own statistics, almost 25% of P-1 visa petitions receive an RFE from the agency before they will complete their review of the case, including those filed for professional athletes. Of this number, only 65% are ultimately approved. See https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Outreach/Notes%20from%20Previous%20Engagements/I129_Quarterly_Request_for_Evidence_FY2015_FY2020_Q1.pdf.

Of the many reasons USCIS uses to justify the issuance of an RFE, some truly stand out as reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of the real sports world and the regulations of the agency responsible for issuing the RFE’s, including:

1. Requests for five-year competition schedules for tours or other events if the athlete is seeking the maximum five-year validity period for the P-1 visa. NO SPORT ISSUES SCHEDULES FIVE YEARS IN ADVANCE; however, most sports can issue a one-year schedule with a letter from their chief executives confirming that the schedule repeats in the same format every year. Although these letters were accepted by USCIS as justification for a five-year visa request for decades, USCIS has now started restricting visas to one-year periods matching the one-year schedule that was provided. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way sporting events are scheduled in the real w