Have Bauers Will Travel: Trans-Border Labor Trials

The NHL’s borderlessness is an unassailable virtue — the long-standing reality that a single NHL roster can be comprised of five or seven differing nationalities, all united in a common competitive cause. And yet as players move in significant volume as they did with last week’s trade deadline, big-time bureaucratic challenges set in as the complex immigration policies of sovereign nations mandate elaborate and well scrutinized process, formal inspection, and adjudication for players’ work eligibility. Media accounts briefly and generally allude to individual player’s visa challenges, but always without in-depth explanation. Fans are left to wonder: after a player in Canada is acquired via trade, just when will he arrive and dress and help out his new team? And why the delays?
The Capitals with their deadline frenzy last week had to navigate the protocols put in place by Congress, the U.S. State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security. Sergei Fedorov, a Russian national, was already in possession of a work visa while skating for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Matt Cooke and Cristobal Huet, both laboring in Canada, necessarily had to navigate America’s immigration bureaucracy; that both were dressed in their new sweaters and helping out their new teammates by last weekend is a testament to the timely and detail-oriented work of the Capitals, the respective players’ agents, and likely some semblance of accommodation on the part of the U.S. government.
I had a chance this week to chat with Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies here in D.C., and find out a little about the basics involved with such player movement. If you’re really intrigued by the mechanics of the international hockey player (and fan) movement process, the bible for it is Siskind’s site for immigration and visa law review. (Warning: as with the U.S. immigration code generally, it’s not for the feint of law degree.)
From my conversation with Vaughan I learned that there are three basic principles guiding the process of border crossing for puck movers. First, while it’s true that most hockey-breeding nations such as Canada are part of the U.S. government’s Visa Waiver Program, (Russia however is not), it’s one thing to enter and visit the United States and quite another to work here. Labor here requires a specialized, well-documented, and well scrutinized category of admission, whereas entry for tourism, for instance, for nationals from Visa Waiver nations requires only a passport.
The second principle of admission is that foreign athletes — like foreign entertainers — ultimately will return to their home countries, and so they enter in America’s non-immigrant categories. For all practical purposes this means that international hockey players enter the U.S. most commonly under the ‘P’ visa — “Ordinary athlete or entertainer” — but also can avail themselves of the ‘O’ visa — “Extraordinary worker.” Individual players, typically represented by their agents, initiate petitions for these visas, but teams can as well.
“The State Department would expedite paperwork to the extent it can,” Vaughan told me, “however, DHS must approve the petitions, and they are not nearly as efficient as State.”
“Delays can occur for a variety of reasons — the [player] agent or athlete didn’t fill out all the paperwork correctly or completely; if the athlete has had any brush with the law, he/she might have to apply for a waiver, which can take a couple of weeks to process. If they have any criminal record, usually they don’t want that to be public, so the agent/press person will blame it on bureaucracy.
“I believe many of the ‘hassles’ reported by artists, entertainers, etc., are more due to incompetency on the part of agents or lawyers messing up applications than government inefficiency. The rules are pretty clear, and if these agents are worth their fees, they should know how to get it done right,” she claimed. That brings up principle three: have your papers in order; after all, players in hockey and other professional sports can be traded at a moment’s notice.
More evidence that the U.S. government is at times unnecessarily scapegoated: occasionally State will admit an athlete such as a French national like Huet on good faith, recognizing that his acquiring team has a need for his services in a timely manner while authorizing government paperwork will lag behind.
“Thousands of people get through every month without hassle, which doesn’t get reported,” Vaughan pointed out.
It’s not uncommon for P visas to be granted to athletes and good for 10 years.
Who would qualify for an ‘O’ visa? Maria Sharapova. Who most assuredly would not? Kris Beech.
To qualify for a non-immigrant visa, the applicant must prove to a U.S. consular officer and DHS inspector that he is likely to return home. A typical consulate will also require or encourage all applicants to submit a letter from their employer stating their position and salary [arch blogger observation: by this criteria Jaromir Jagr should still be held up in visa adjudications] — commonly known as the “job letter.” They’d typically also need a letter from their bank stating how much money is in their account (the “bank letter”), or other evidence of ties to their country.
Siskind’s site noted that the ‘O’ visa is a temporary work visa “available to those foreign nationals who have ‘extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics’ which ‘have been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim.’ Again, Sharapova in, Beech out (good riddance). More: “It is also available to those in motion pictures and television who can demonstrate a record of extraordinary achievement.”
Like, these guys?

This entry was posted in Matt Cooke, NHL Trades, Sergei Fedorov, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Have Bauers Will Travel: Trans-Border Labor Trials

  1. Cathy W says:

    Interesting blog entry. I looked at the immigration law web site linked to your blog entry. Their article on O-1 visas stated that the O-1 visas are issued on one year basis and the article did not list a limit for the number of one year renewals. I assume that Ovechkin qualifies for the O visa (if anyone in the NHL has extraordinary ability, it’s him and he has the 13 year contract beginning next season) It would be interesting to know if all NHL players have O visas or if some have P-1 visas. Given that players have longer careers in the NHL, I don’t recall reading about any NHL players who came up against the 10 year limitation on P-1 visas and if it occurred, how it was resolved.

  2. Cathy, thank you for raising the interesting questions you did. Most foreign NHLers will work in the U.S. on P visas — the category established for professional athletes. Even Ovechkin, most likely. I’m not sure he would have qualified for the O when he first came over in 2005, as brilliant a junior player as he was. My reading of the “exceptionalism” designation for that category suggests someone like a Roger Federer. As for expirations, I’d imagine it certain that someone like Fedorov, given the duration of his career, has had to renew at least once.

  3. Cathy W says:

    Thanks for your reply. My understanding is that Federov is a naturalized U.S citizen so he no longer has to deal with visa issues.

  4. NS2NOVA says:

    I think the NHL should do another in the “They’re just like you and me” series of commercials based on immigration rules.
    It’s good to see that the screwed up process isn’t just limited to lowly foreign workers who have decent jobs and want to help out the economy.
    (Can you tell I’m stuck in the endless paper pushing process of immigration?)

  5. NS2NOVA says:

    It was definitely an interesting post though Pucks.

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