Visas and Immigration for Canadian Riders

David Ziegler and Peninsula Top Man at Galway Downs in 2011. Photo by Samantha Clark. David Ziegler and Peninsula Top Man at Galway Downs in 2011. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Like many Canadians looking to ride professionally, I was aware of the challenge our Canadian climate plays in limiting our competition season.  So, as many of others have done, I jumped into the murky waters of finding a way to stay in the U.S. full time so as not disrupt my training program.

I’m sure I’m not the first one to joke about taking a weekend in Vegas and getting hitched to the first person I meet, but it seems Green Card marriages aren’t as easy as they used to be.

I have had my share of bad lawyers petitioning for visas, or in some cases, not petitioning when they should have been; until last autumn I had the pleasure of Seema Sonad introducing me to her friend, Renee Hykel Cuddy, of Hykel Law in Philadelphia. With stunning results handling my case, I asked Renee if she could provide her expertise for this article.

While attending law school, Renee Hykel Cuddy ambitiously trained and competed around the globe as an International Olympic athlete for the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team. She competed for the United States for six years and won several international medals.  This intimate knowledge of athletics and how important it is to remain in a full-time training program proved paramount, where other attorneys greatly fell short. The following is a contribution from Ms. Hykel Cuddy regarding different options for coaches and athletes seeking U.S. immigration benefits:

Hello equestrian community and thanks for your ears!

For coaches and athletes who wish to visit, train, compete and/or work in the United States, navigating the U.S. immigration system can be tricky. Here are the most common types of U.S. immigration classifications for persons coming to the U.S. through connections in the equestrian sport.

Temporary Visitors

Many foreign nationals enter the United States as temporary visitors. If you are coming from a country that participates in the visa waiver program (many European countries), you do not need to apply for a visa to visit the United States and you may enter for a period of 90 days simply by showing your passport.

Canadians also do not need a visa to enter the United States. Canadians are unique in that they can enter the country for a period of six months before any issues with U.S. immigration might arise.  All other temporary visitors need to apply for a B visa (B1 – temporary business visitor, and/or B2 – temporary visitor for pleasure). Temporary visitors may not work for U.S. companies or otherwise engage in U.S. employment. Persons who enter on the visa waiver program may NOT apply for an extension to remain longer in the U.S. (unless there is an emergency), but Canadians and persons who enter with a visa may apply for extensions.

Temporary Trainee Visa (H-3)

For up and coming riders or coaches, the H-3 trainee visa may be a viable option. David Ziegler held an H-3 visa at one time. This visa is appropriate for persons coming to the U.S. to participate in a training program that is not available in the home country that will benefit the trainee in a career outside the U.S.

Individuals must be invited by a company or organization to receive training, meaning you must have a U.S. employer sponsor you.  This visa can last up to two years and can be renewed for 18 months. You will be authorized to accept a stipend as part of the training program but cannot engage in any other form of employment.

Internationally Recognized Athlete and support personnel or coaches (P-1)

A P-1 visa is available to foreign national athletes who are internationally recognized and are coming to the United States to participate in events that require athletes of an international calibre. In order to qualify for this visa, the athlete must have an internationally reputation in the sport that can be proved by experts, news media articles and a letter from your national governing body.

P-1 athletes need to be sponsored by a U.S. employer and are only permitted to work for the employer (or agent) as described in the visa petition while in the United States. P-1 athletes may also bring their foreign coaches and support personnel, provided there is a need for their services while in the United States.

With the assistance of my company, Hykel Law, David recently obtained P-1 status after earning international recognition for medaling in two separate disciplines last summer. A P-1 visa may last for five years, but is based on the competition schedule submitted with the visa petition.

Person of Extraordinary Ability (O-1)

Foreign national athletes and coaches who have risen to the very top of their field (think top 5%) and experienced sustained international success are eligible to apply for an O-1 work visa. For athletes, you will want to have several international competitions under your belt, and ideally, an international medal. For coaches, you will want to show that your athletes are consistently competing (ideally, they are winning) at international competitions.

The Pan-Am Games, World Championships and Olympic Games are competition results that would support this category. Again, you will need expert letters, international rankings and media articles. You will also need a U.S. employer to sponsor you with the preliminary validity period being three years (extension requests can be submitted).

Permanent Residence in the USA/Green Card

Ultimately, if you plan on living permanently in the U.S., you will want to obtain lawful permanent residence, which results in the issuance of a “green card.” The work visas mentioned above are temporary in nature (“non-immigrant” is the legal term), but green cards are permanent (“immigrant”).

To qualify for a green card, you either need to have a U.S. Employer sponsor you for a job in the United States or in the case of internationally recognized athletes and coaches, you may be able to file on your own (“EB-1”), provided that you plan to continue in your field of expertise and you are amidst a period of sustained, international success. Another avenue to consider is having U.S. citizen or green card family members petition you for a family-based green card (spouse, brother, parents).

Trouble at the U.S. Border

We have all heard the stories of people being turned away at the border, with and without visas. However, many of the problems lie in not following the law. Just because you are granted a visa, doesn’t mean you have a green light to do whatever you want while in the U.S. Each visa has restrictions on what an individual can and cannot do while in the U.S.

While David was in H3 status, he was not permitted to work, however, with the P-1 he is able to work for his U.S. sponsor as described in the petition submitted to USCIS.  It comes down to being properly informed and taking personal responsibility for following the guidelines.

David says he still sweats bullets going through security at airports, but he always passed through quickly because he has all of the required paperwork and has abided by the terms of his visa.

The most common issue I come across with international athletes is that they retire from elite competition and become coaches. If you filed a P-1 athlete visa, you are not permitted to work as a coach. Especially in cases where the status is granted for several years, when Customs and Border Patrol inquire about your status at the border, if you’ve been retired for a year, don’t be surprised if you get turned away and have your visa cancelled.

I hope this article helps demystify visas for Canadian riders, or gives you a place to start when you decide it’s time to look into one. The help of a good attorney is priceless. If you’d like to get in touch with Renee for more advice, you can read more about her and find contact information on her website.