WASHINGTON - U.S. immigration officials have agreed to let foreign athletes extend their careers in the United States beyond a 10-year limit, as long as the athletes leave the country first and apply for a new visa.
The change came in a new policy memo issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, following months of lobbying by sports leagues and lawyers for foreign athletes. The memo, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, also came after the AP made inquiries to the agency about the limit.
The leagues and lawyers had complained that CIS recently began enforcing the 10-year limit, endangering the U.S. careers of foreign athletes. CIS officials countered that they've enforced the limit for years, which is based on a 1990 immigration law.
Foreign athletes participate in pro sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey and golf. They can come to the U.S. and play under what's known as a P-1 visa, which is for internationally recognized athletes or members of internationally recognized entertainment groups.
Under the old CIS regulations, recipients could get five years on the visa, and extend it once for another five years, not to exceed a total of 10 years.
The new policy will require foreign athletes, at the end of 10 years, to leave the country before applying for a new visa. That's not expected to be much of a burden for the athletes, many of whom return to their home country anyway in the offseason.
Major League Baseball and other pro sports were worried that the 10-year limit would put a dent in some of their players' careers, especially those who spend several seasons in the minor leagues. While the sports couldn't point to any athletes who have been kept out because of the policy, they expressed fears that could happen any time.
The new policy memo states that P-1 athletes "are not subject to a lifetime admission of 10 years in the United States."
In the last session of Congress, MLB pushed legislation by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., that would have scrapped the 10-year limit. The bill made it through the House Judiciary Committee but never came up for a vote in the House.
"It is difficult to imagine our sports leagues today without such names as Dirk Nowitzki, Dikembe Mutombo, Johan Santana, Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Guerrero, all of whom are foreign citizens," Sanchez wrote in a "Dear Colleague" letter to lawmakers last session.
There were other options for players who had reached the cap, such as applying for a green card or trying for a different type of visa. For example, the AP learned that National Basketball Association star Nowitzki, a Dallas Mavericks forward now in his 11th season, switched to an O-1 visa last year. The O-1 visa is reserved for athletes and others of "extraordinary ability," and the German-born Nowitzki is one the league's top players. But it's not an option for the average professional athlete.