The London Summer Olympic Games are fast approaching, and the most extraordinary international athletes are gearing up to travel and compete for the most sought after award in international athletics, an Olympic Medal. Olympians compete and train all year at international competitions to remain at the top of their sport. One question we often receive from sports leagues, managers, agents, athletes and promoters is: “what visa options are there for international athletes to come to the U.S.?”
Under current immigration law, internationally-recognized athletes, either as an individual or as a member of an internationally recognized team, can qualify for P-1 nonimmigrant visas to come to the U.S. to compete at distinguished athletic competitions. A U.S. employer, sponsoring organization, or agent must file the petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which must include a contract and itinerary for the athlete’s competitions, events and/or promotional appearances. Certain sports present unique challenges with regards to the contracts and itineraries an athlete can obtain (swimming, golf, volleyball, boxing), often requiring creative solutions, such as extrapolating prior reoccurring seasons or events to project future competition.
Some international athletes can qualify for O-1 nonimmigrant visas as “athletes of extraordinary ability,” if they are within the small percentage of athletes who have risen to the very top of their sport. O-1 athletes are not limited to the specific athletic competitions mentioned above for P-1s, but they still must demonstrate they are coming to the U.S. to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability. Similar to the P-1 visa, O-1 athletes require a U.S. employer or agent to file a petition. Due to the higher adjudicatory standards associated with the O-1 visa, most athletes pursue P-1s.
International athletes with extraordinary ability who qualify for the temporary O-1 visa may also qualify for the extraordinary ability green card, often referred to as “EB1-1”. The EB1-1 is very similar to the O-1, but carries with it a much higher evidentiary and adjudicatory standard. While both categories require the athlete to display they are in the top few percentages in their sport and to demonstrate sustained national or international acclaim, the level of scrutiny applied to EB1-1 cases is burdensomely high. While an EB1-1 may be self-petitioned (unlike the O-1 or P-1), having an acclaimed sports team file the petition may be the buzzer beater.
Olympian hopefuls can achieve more than just a medal if they win in London – both the O-1 and EB1-1 visas may be approved based on receipt of “a major, internationally recognized award.” Yes, a gold medal may automatically qualify someone for a green card (they did beat the rest of the world after all). International athletes who win national or international competitions should consult with an experienced immigration attorney to determine whether their achievement would qualify as major and internationally recognized. Even if an award or medal does not rise to the level of major and internationally recognized, it may still meet one of the regulatory criteria to help demonstrate an athlete is extraordinary.
Intending U.S. immigrant athletes competing at the Olympic Games are striving for more than just Olympic glory, because while every Olympic competitor dreams of winning the gold, for some, the bigger prize is green.
View a recorded webinar “Work Visas & Green Cards for Athletes (O/P &E-11)” presented by Blake Miller.