Making sure teams look good on paper

Via Star-Telegram

05/07/2006

By RAY+ BUCK
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Assistant general manager Keith Grant of the Mavericks has obtained working visas for non-U.S. citizens plenty of times.

It’s the NBA way — importing players from abroad — and it’s viewed
by league officials as an “international” phenomenon with no end in
sight.

When the “Dream Team” captured Olympic gold at Barcelona in 1992,
NBA rosters were dotted with 21 international players from 18 countries.

This past season, NBA teams could boast 82 international players from 38 countries and territories.

Playoff teams, too.

Going into Round 1, there were 44 international players from 25
countries and territories among the 16 teams — including the Mavericks
with three, and led by the defending champion Spurs with seven.

So, you get the idea. Grant has been filing forms with the U.S.
State Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for
quite some time now.

But nothing prepared him for what happened last October.

The Mavs had just beaten the New York Knicks 104-102 in an
exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. While the rest of the team
flew to Detroit, Grant used a day off between games to chauffeur
DeSagana Diop to Toronto.

Diop, who had changed teams (Cavs to Mavs), was in need of a new P-1 visa.

The “P-1” is available to “priority professionals” with
“extraordinary skills” — such as doctors, researchers, entertainers
and athletes.

It’s the same visa used by Major League Baseball (actually, for any
international players on 40-man rosters) and the NHL, where 31 percent
of its players hail from beyond North American borders.

Anyway, back to Grant and Diop.

“DeSagana and I flew to Toronto, got a morning appointment and had
his visa by that afternoon,” Grant said. “But then, our flight to
Detroit was cancelled. Our only option was taking two commuter planes
— Toronto-to-Cleveland and Cleveland-to-Detroit.

“So, I told DeSagana, ‘Let’s just drive.'”

Grant was used to driving players from the northeast corridor to
either Toronto or Ottawa over the years, all in the quest for visas.

“So, we’re crossing the Canadian border in a Jeep rental — me and
DeSagana — and [the 7-foot] DeSagana is sitting halfway in the
backseat because he’s so long,” said Grant, who stands 5-11.

“I mean, we’re sitting there … The Odd Couple at its finest. Needless to say, we’re made to pull over, step inside and answer a few questions.”

NBA, MLB systems work

The adventures of a long-legged Senegalese power forward, with visa
in hand, doesn’t pack the same political punch as illegal immigration
and border control.

Maybe that’s the beauty of sports.

Pro teams have become more and more proactive in getting the proper immigration papers into the hands of their players.

“The process hasn’t gotten any easier, but we’re getting much more
organized,” said Kim Bohuny, vice president/NBA basketball operations.

Procuring players’ visas varies from sport to sport, from league to
league, even from level to level. But the goal is the same — make it
happen.

NBA players receive P-1 visas for the length of their contracts, which are usually three to four years and always guaranteed.

Conversely, major and minor league baseball players are required to
return to their native countries at the end of each season and reapply
for new visas.

Players not on the 40-man roster — even those with major league
jobs — must vie for “H-2B” visas. These visas are capped (66,000
available per year) and quotas are set.

All types of laborers crossing U.S. borders are eligible for H-2B visas: landscapers, loggers and minor-league infielders alike.

“An ‘H-2B’ is a specialized work visa but not the ultimate
specialized work visa,” said John Lombardo, director of minor league
operations for the Rangers. “Obviously, a P-1 — with no cap — is
incredibly simpler” to obtain and renew.

The Rangers, as with all MLB teams, obtain visas for every player in the organization, from Class A rookie league to the majors.

Each visa costs the Rangers $340 — minimum.

“It normally takes 45-60 days to get a P-1 or H-2B visa,” Lombardo
said. “Or else, you can send a $1,000 premium-processing fee and get a
visa in 10 days.”

It’s the responsibility of MLB — serving as an industry — to make
sure that all 30 teams are “certified” to make individual visa requests.

In turn, MLB gets an assist from the government.

Said Lombardo: “We do receive — I don’t want to call it ‘special
treatment’ because it’s not — but we do have a dedicated person
working in Homeland Security who helps expedite the process as much as
possible for our players.”

On the Rangers’ current 40-man roster, there are 12 international
players — nine from the Dominican Republic; one each from Japan,
Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Each visa order requires the team to package up 15-20 pages of
documents, including the player’s contract. The player then goes to his
consulate, shows proper ID and secures his visa.

That hasn’t changed.

What has changed, however, is heightened U.S. scrutiny after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Going into 9/11, there was a lot of corruption — not from the U.S.
side but from the international side — in the visa process,” Lombardo
said. “Things got lax…like family members getting piggy-backed onto a
player’s visa.”

Historically, Dominican players have had a reputation for “visa problems,” causing them to miss the start of spring training.

“I just think the Dominican Republic is still paying the price for
some of that corruption, even though it’s not there now,” Lombardo said.

There are more Dominican players than any other international group
in the majors today. And they all arrive at once, Lombardo noted.

Right-handed reliever Omar Beltre — a once highly regarded
Dominican prospect of the Rangers — was implicated a couple of years
ago in an alleged multiple-player visa scam, preventing him from U.S.
entry.

“If a player has made a mistake — somewhere, somehow — or his
paperwork is not in order…he’s not getting in,” said Lombardo,
referring to no one in particular.

“Since 9/11, the visa process has become much more difficult,” Lombardo added. “They’re cracking down. Thank goodness for that.”

Don’t forget hockey

Basketball players average 20 to 22 years old after well-documented
careers with their national teams. Baseball often sends teen-agers to
the States.

The NBA also secures a temporary “visitor’s visa” for any player who
wishes to come to the United States before the June draft for a
non-payment, individual workout for a team.

But the NBA and MLB aren’t alone in helping non-U.S. citizens’ entry
into the country to play pro sports. American-based NHL teams are part
of a league that is about 52 percent Canadian-born.

The Stars finished the season with 11 Canadians, six Finns and a total of 21 players born outside the United States.

“The P-1 visa allows players to travel outside the U.S. and play
hockey in Canada…[and] is valid through the term of the player’s
contract,” said Lesa Moake, Stars director of hockey and team services.

“There are some European countries [Czech Republic, Latvia and
Russia] that require a Canadian visa as well. I file those
multiple-entry visas with the Canadian consulate, and they are valid
for one year.”

A player with a P-1 visa can apply for a green card, which allows
non-U.S. citizens to reside permanently and work in the United States.

That process usually takes “a minimum of two years,” said Moake,
adding, “If a player has a green card and leaves the U.S. to play for a
team in Canada, he is required to surrender his green card.”

Minor-league hockey players receive 10-month visas.

“It’s tougher for minor-league teams,” said Eric Schultz, an immigration lawyer for Sacks, Kolken & Schultz of Buffalo.

One of Schultz’s accounts is the Central Hockey League, which includes the suddenly-now-in-limbo Fort Worth Brahmas.

Unlike P-1 visa holders, H-2B players must get the blessing of the U.S. Labor Department before a contract can be signed.

“Only if it can be certified that sufficient recruitment has been
done to look for U.S.-citizen players or green-card holders will the
Department of Labor authorize permission for employment to be offered
to a non-U.S. citizen,” Schultz said.

Not so, for the big boys.

Said Terry Lyons, vice president/NBA international communications:
“I see NBA coaches, players and fans saying, ‘May the best man play.'”

This idea of open competition may be where immigration in sports shines brightest.

If nothing else, filling out all that paperwork must seem worthwhile.

  • For more online information on immigration in sports:

    www.uscis.gov

    www.us-immigration.com

    www.sackskolken.com

  • Staff writer David Sessions contributed to this report.

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