Yankees’ New Phenom: Tanaka’s First Pitch was to U.S. Immigration Agency

By pgandhi [Thursday, April 10th, 2014]



Masahiro Tanaka was a star pitcher in Japan putting together an impressive resume where he went 99-35 with a 2.30 ERA in seven seasons with his Japanese team, striking out 1,238 in 1,315 innings. This baseball season, however, the 25-year-old Tanaka agreed to a $155 million, seven-year deal to be the new prize pitcher in the Yankees rotation. (And if last night’s performance is any indication, he’s going to shine with his new team.)

Pitching in New York City, and specifically for the Yankees, can be a very daunting experience. However, it gave Tanaka the greatest financial opportunity as well as the competitive opportunity to play against the world’s best players. In order to get Tanaka over to spring training so he could start his new career in pinstripes, the Yankees had to get a member of Congress to intervene and expedite his visa process. Tanaka also teamed up with his agent Casey Close and lawyers with expertise in immigration law in order to facilitate the process. When it comes to foreign ball players looking to come play in the MLB, it is advantageous for the ballplayer to work with experienced immigration law professionals.

When foreign ballplayers come to the United States they usually apply for a P-1A visa. An athletic team that employs a P-1A alien must show he or she is “internationally recognized,” which the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines as “having a high level of achievement in a field evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered, to the extent that such achievement is renowned, leading, or well-known in more than one country.” The biggest obstacle international athletes face is the “internationally recognized” test set forth above. For several of these athletes, however, this test is easily met, as long as they are signing a contract with a team within the major sports leagues in the U.S.

P-1A visas are awarded for an initial period of five years, renewable once for a second five-year period. In Tanaka’s case he signed for a 7-year contract and will have an initial period of five years on the visa and then will have to apply for an extension in order to complete performance of his Yankees contract. Moreover,  the P-1A  visa holder may arrive temporarily into the U.S., intending to depart voluntarily at the end of the contract and are required to have a residence abroad that they don’t intend to abandon. However, one with a P-1A visa may lawfully seek to become a permanent resident of the U.S.

Although the visa category requirements are quite specific, most athletes who play for major and minor league sports leagues may qualify. The P-1A visa also has benefits, because there is no limit on the number of athletes for whom a team may petition, and there is no national cap on the number of athletes who may enter the U.S. This flexibility allows teams to easily add players from abroad, assuming they encounter no difficulties from the USCIS or relevant consulate during the actual petition process. However, in 2005 Baltimore Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson was scratched from a scheduled start and was not allowed to pitch in a game until he obtained a valid P-1A visa. Ponson was at the time on a visa waiver program, which allowed Ponson the ability to conduct business and travel to the United States for leisure for a 90-day period, but was not allowed to earn a salary in the United States. On the advice of his counsel Ponson did not apply right away for a P-1A visa because he had assault charges pending in Aruba after an altercation in which he punched an Aruban judge in the face. Ponson could have applied for the visa, even with the charges still pending. However, in order to obtain the work visa, you have to meet with an official from a U.S. and he would have been required to reveal the details of the incident. His representatives worried that the official could deny the visa request without a resolution to the case.

Like other visas available to individuals seeking to enter the U.S., the process of obtaining a visa can be time consuming, complex and stressful. Processing a P-1A visa application can take up to 30 days. With Tanaka scheduled to report on February 14, it was possible he wasn’t going to make it on time. The Yankees filed a petition for Tanaka’s P-1 with the USCIS, and wanted faster-than-normal approval of his case. The Yankees called New York Senator Chuck Schumer because they were worried about the length of time it can take for foreign players to get a visa. Senator Schumer contacted USCIS on behalf of the Yankees and requested that the pitcher’s application be processed quickly. This is something he has done previously with the New York Mets as well, when they had a visa issue with all-star shortstop Jose Reyes.

Members of Congress cannot require that USCIS approve a particular applicant’s case. However, Members of Congress can influence these administrative agencies to expedite certain cases that are under review. For the everyday applicant, expedites are typically considered only for humanitarian or pressing medical reasons. But to please the hometown fans/voters, the New York senator used his influence on behalf of Tanaka in time for spring training.  Tanaka received his visa to report to spring training on February 14, and take the mound for the first time in Yankee Stadium on April 9.  As Senator Schumer stated “As a lifelong Yankee fan who is hoping for another World Series this year, I could not be happier.”

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