Coronavirus Crisis: COVID-19 And The Foreign Professional Athlete


In recent days, many professional sports have had their seasons and events delayed, suspended or cancelled, including the PGA TOUR, the LPGA Tour, Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the XFL, among others. NFL teams also have pushed back travel arrangements and cancelled face-to-face meetings with draft prospects, all in an effort deal with the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

For the foreign national athletes and their support staff, these changes to their schedules and itineraries can be worrisome as they can impact their immigration status which is normally tied to a specific itinerary. This article is intended to give these individuals up to date information relating to the impact on their visa status and visa processing procedures. Since these issues are subject to change as the worldwide situation evolves, one should always consult with their legal counsel for the most current information.

GREEN CARD HOLDERS: Currently, the travel ban would not apply to green card holders, their spouses, children or parents. If they go home, they can return (subject to additional testing at airports and potential quarantine based upon that testing). However, as with everything right now, the situation could change and travel by all could be halted.

PLAYERS AND STAFF WITH P-1 OR P-1S VISAS: Those athletes and support personnel currently in the U.S. with P-1 or P-1S visas need to review the specific itinerary that was submitted with their visa petition. Normally this would include this year’s schedule for their sport. If that schedule has now been interrupted due to suspension, brief pause or cancellation, each case may be treated differently. While all sports require their athletes to be here to train and receive treatment between their events, the P-1 statute refers to an alien who “performs as an athlete” and “seeks to enter the United States temporarily and solely for the purpose of performing as . . . an athlete with respect to a specific athletic competition.” Therefore, any interruption in the competitive events on the schedule should be carefully reviewed with counsel. Arguably, a pause or suspension should not trigger a need to depart or change status since many sports have lengthy periods of time between their events. However, the cancellation of an entire season could negatively impact the athlete’s immigration status since his or her sole purpose is required to be to compete in specific competitions. In that situation, the athlete should seriously consider departing the U.S. or filing for a change of status to an alternative visa category.

PLAYERS ON B-1 VISAS: The regulations allow individual athletes to enter on B-1 visitor visas to compete for prize money only. These are generally obtained by athletes for whom the ESTA visitor visa waiver is not available based upon their country of citizenship. The B-1 visa allows an athlete to be admitted to stay in the U.S. for up to 6 months. They can also request a six-month extension of B-1 status without leaving the country. If they do leave the country and go to a country where a travel ban is in place, like the P-1 visa holders, they will not be able to return UNTIL the travel ban is lifted.

PLAYERS ON ESTA (VISA WAIVER) ADMISSIONS: The ESTA (VWP) ADMISSION is generally valid for 90 days. No routine extensions or changes of status are permitted. However, there is an emergency extension permitted for an additional 30 days under the regulations. However, there is no process to extend beyond that. This poses a problem for those who are nationals of a country subject to the COVID-19 Travel Ban, currently including China, Iran, Schengen Countries and now, as of Monday, March 16, 2020 at midnight, to include the U.K. and Ireland. The question then becomes what can individuals whose period of ESTA admission will be expiring and who cannot depart the U.S. do. CBP (Customs & Border Protection) will permit Ports of Entry (including deferred inspection locations) to be contacted by VWP travelers already in the U.S. who are unable to depart the U.S. before their period of admission ends to request a “Satisfactory Departure extension” of 30 days. These requests are normally made with USCIS District Directors at local offices. CBP Ports of Entry are working on the mechanism to allow individuals to make these requests. Deferred Inspection CBP sites can be found at:

https://www.cbp.gov/contact/ports/deferred-inspection-sites.

Importantly, note that ESTA registration revocations are being implemented as a planned action so travelers outside of the U.S. who are now barred under the COVID-19 Travel Bans do not unnecessarily attempt to travel to the U.S. when they are unable to do so. These revocations are without prejudice and those travelers will be able to apply for ESTA in the future.

CONSULAR VISA APPOINTMENTS: Please note that a number of U.S. Embassies in Europe and throughout the world are now cancelling visa appointments. As such, best practice would be to check the relevant website for the particular post where you seek to schedule an interview to ensure an appointment can be scheduled and move forward. A link to information on consulate specific information on closures can be found at:

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/COVID-19-Country-Specific-Information.html

As stated above, this information is subject to change and individuals, tours, leagues, teams and sponsors should verify with counsel before relying on this advice.

*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. www.realclearcounsel.com

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