Senate OKs change in visa category for foreign athletes, artists
MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON (May 30) -- The U.S. Senate has voted to classify Jose Rodriguez as an "internationally recognized" athlete.
Rodriguez, who is from Venezuela, joined the Durham Bulls as a relief pitcher this season after stints with minor league affiliates of the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets.
Like other foreign-born minor league players, he competes every year for seasonal worker visas, or H-2B visas, with other immigrants who work in industries such as hotels and restaurants.
But an amendment attached to the Senate immigration reform bill that passed Thursday would give Rodriguez access to a different visa category, called P-1, currently reserved for what the law calls "internationally recognized" artists, entertainers and athletes.
The change, which has not been approved by the House, would allow baseball franchises to recruit as many foreign-born players as they like for their minor league teams by removing them from the competitive pool of seasonal worker visas.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the "Maineiacs" amendment, named after a minor league hockey team in her state. It would "level the playing field for minor league sports teams that depend on getting the best athletic talent," Collins said in a statement.
A shortage of seasonal worker visas for minor league players began in the wake of September 11, when the federal government lowered the cap from more than 120,000 per year to 66,000. The change has put some franchises in a pinch, said Lucy Calautti, a Washington lobbyist for Major League Baseball.
Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have been lobbying Congress to change the visa category because they say the quotas have blocked them from bringing potential stars to the United States.
"Some teams don't have the resources for a substantial payroll, so it's very important for them to count on their farm system to bring up ballplayers," Calautti said.
Calautti said the cap for seasonal worker visas is usually met by January, forcing teams to decide months before the season begins what positions they are going to fill with foreign players.
"How does a team know before the season starts that they're going to have an injured player at shortstop?" she said.
Foreign players make up an estimated 40 percent of minor league rosters and about 25 percent of major league rosters. But Rodriguez is the only foreign-born player on the Bulls, a triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Mitch Lukevics, director of minor league operations for the Devil Rays, said the team doesn't recruit as heavily in Latin America as other teams, and has not had problems with its allotment of 37 seasonal worker visas this year.
But Calautti said giving foreign-born minor leaguers the visas reserved for major leaguers -- as proposed by Collins -- would be good not just for baseball clubs, but for fans as well.
"Whether a player is born here or in another country, if they have a great skill to play baseball, fans should have the chance to see them play."
The amendment attached to the Senate bill will have to be reconciled in a House immigration bill this summer.
But Rodriguez says he is hoping to get the visa reserved for major leaguers without the help of Congress -- by being called up to the Devil Rays.
"That's why I'm here," he said.