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Baseball goes to bat to ease rules on foreign players

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/03/06
WASHINGTON — The debate over immigration has become a major league issue. Literally.

Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have teamed up to lobby Congress for a change in visa rules that sometimes prevent them from bringing foreign-born talent to the United States. That's because government rules lump minor league baseball and hockey players into the same visa category as oyster shuckers and summer resort help.

The system is especially troublesome for baseball. Other employers, with whom baseball teams compete for visas, secure their worker slots by December of the previous year, meaning that baseball players signed in June usually can't come to the United States in the same year they're signed.

Dayton Moore, the Braves' assistant general manager for scouting, said the team has not had problems with the visa cap because of the organization's well-established player development plan. But about 350 foreign-born minor leaguers have been denied visas in the last two years, which has affected all other teams, baseball officials said.

"The assets of Major League Baseball clubs are their players," said Benny Looper, vice president of scouting and player development for the Seattle Mariners. "If we can't get a guy into the game here, that's a waste of money — and of major consequence to us as a team and to him as an individual."

On opening day this year, more than one-fourth of the players on Major League Baseball teams were foreign-born, while immigrants made up about 40 percent of minor league rosters. So it's no wonder that, with a national debate raging about how many and what kind of foreigners to allow into the country, baseball officials and the National Hockey League are weighing in.

Federal immigration rules govern who is allowed to enter the United States to work legally. For athletes, there are two types of work permits.

The P-1 visa is reserved for what the law calls "internationally recognized" artists, entertainers and athletes, the best of their profession, whether they are Russian violinists or Dominican infielders. Major League Baseball and NHL players automatically qualify for this visa, and the government does not cap the number of such visas given out each year.

Then there is the H-2B visa, which was intended for seasonal agricultural workers and service industry employees but also includes minor-league athletes from foreign countries who work in the United States for set sports seasons.

These visas allow American teams to bring up players from the leagues they sponsor in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, as well as Canadian high schoolers drafted in June.

"Our sports are affected by these rules because our sports need minor leagues to nurture players into the majors," said Lucy Calautti, the senior Washington lobbyist for Major League Baseball. "This is one of the biggest issues for us."

The system seemingly worked well until two years ago, when, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government lowered the ceiling on the number of H-2B visas from more than 120,000 per year to 66,000.

The crunch took baseball teams by surprise, because the government had always worked closely with the teams to process players' immigration papers.

"We've had people working in baseball on immigration for years now," said Moore, of the Braves. "They've done a good job, but that year some people got caught unaware."

Teams never had their visa requests denied before 2001, as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (since replaced by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) routinely raised quota levels to accommodate baseball prospects.

Major League Baseball received a slight reprieve in 2005, when Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) helped push through a law that allowed the H-2B quota to be split into two halves over the course of a year. Her amendment was meant to help the crabbing and oyster industry in Maryland, but baseball teams also benefited by getting some of their draft choices into the United States in the same season.

But national security prerogatives have kept the government from changing the quotas for baseball or hockey or moving minor leaguers into another visa classification, baseball and Homeland Security officials say.

This year, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) drafted a provision in the Senate immigration bill that would allow minor league baseball and hockey players to apply for the specialized P-1 visa.

The bill is still being debated, and baseball officials aren't confident that their woes will be over by this year's postseason. They know that any number of local and national political developments could strike down immigration reform efforts on Capitol Hill.

"Americans right now are focused on the illegal immigration debate, but I hope that they will turn their attention on the legal immigrants that need some help, too," said Stan Brand, vice president of Minor League Baseball.