World Cup Fever: Immigration Options for Star Athletes

On Sunday, July 15, 2018, France defeated Croatia 4-2 to take home the World Cup. It was a glorious victory for France, reveling in their first World Cup victory in twenty years. And Croatia, though not victorious, defeated mighty foes on their way to the finals, upsetting such worthy opponents as Denmark, host nation, Russia, and former World Cup winner, England. Since 1930, the World Cup has been played every four years to determine the top soccer team on the globe, except in the years 1942 and 1946 because of World War II. The World Cup, like the Olympic Games, is a sporting event to gather a fractious world and celebrate our common love of sporting competition.

The United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, the year five-time champion Brazil defeated Italy, but has yet to win a men’s soccer championship. Team USA has taken home the women’s World Cup three times: in 1991 (defeating Norway), 1999, in a stunning defeat over China, and 2015, defeating Japan 5-2. The next men’s tournament will take place in Qatar in 2022, and in 2026 the World Cup championship returns to North America, to be hosted jointly by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Perhaps 2026 will be team USA’s year for victory.

The question naturally arises: how will several thousand professional athletes from around the world obtain entry into the United States to compete for the gold? As citizens of the United States we are often accustomed to visa-free international travel. American citizens are able to travel visa free to to enjoy a soccer match in Moscow, ascend the Eiffel Tower, or visit to the fabled Croatian city of Dubrovnik. But for most people around the world a visa is required to enter the United States, and for even the greatest soccer stars like Kylian Mbappé U.S. immigration law requires a visa to enter the country to compete in a professional match.

The U.S. immigration system for nonimmigrant (i.e. non-permanent) visas is structured according to the purpose of the visa applicant’s visit, and each such purpose is designated a letter according a particular subsection of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Tourists for pleasure request a B1/B-2 visa; students enter on an F-1 visa. Kylian Mbappé and other professional athletes would apply for a P-1 visa. The P-1 classification applies to someone who is “coming to the U.S. temporarily to perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete, individually or as part of a group or team, at an internationally recognized level of performance.” The criteria are fairly straightforward: The athlete must be coming to the United States to “participate in an individual event, competition or performance in which he is internationally recognized with a high level of achievement; evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading or well known in more than one country.” For players on a team, the athlete must be coming to the United States to “participate in team events and must have achieved significant international recognition in the sport. The event in which the team is participating must be distinguished and require the participation of athletic teams of international recognition.” The P-1 classification is designed precisely for professional athletes like Mr. Mbappé and others, and there will no doubt be many hundreds of P-1 soccer stars traveling to the U.S. in 2026. The duration of stay in P-1 status is for the duration of the competition for which the P-1 visa applicant is seeking the enter the U.S.

The P-1 visa is not the only option for an international soccer champion. What if the New York Red Bulls were to offer a position to Mr. Mbappé to play for them permanently? In this instance, the O-1 visa would be appropriate. The O-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for persons of extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, business or athletics. An O-1 visa is valid for an initial period of three years, and is renewable in annualincrements thereafter.

For superstar athletes who wish to make the United States their home, it is possible to obtain permanent residence as an alien of extraordinary ability. Similar to the O-1, green card status for extraordinary athletes is based on evidence of sustained achievement in one’s field of endeavor. In addition, winning a single prize of international recognition, such as Olympic Gold, can be sufficient to be eligible for a green card as an extraordinary athlete.

Since the World Cup first came to the U.S. in 1994, Americans’ interest in soccer has gradually increased. The term “Soccer Mom” has entered into our common lexicon. Such interest in the world’s sport of soccer will hopefully translate into more victories for Team USA in future World Cup events, perhaps even leading to victory in 2026. For athletes and their fans from around the world traveling to this country for competition, U.S. immigration law provides options to make such competition possible.

The Law Office of Gregory J.Eck extends a warm congratulations to France, Croatia, and all the brave competitors at World Cup 2018. For any inquiries about U.S. visa options for future International sporting competition please reach out to us. And in the meantime, Vive la France!

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