SBJ/Jan. 24-30, 2011/Opinion

Immigration law demands close attention to players’ status

In April 2010, Arizona enacted legislation aimed at taking a stricter approach to enforcing immigration laws. A nationwide debate ensued, with some claiming that the law was discriminatory while others claimed that it protected U.S. jobs. Regardless of your political view, the Arizona immigration laws affect any person, sports team or entity that visits Arizona for work or pleasure. Furthermore, with South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi, Nebraska and Oklahoma recently introducing laws similar to what passed in Arizona, there is a very real chance that you will be affected by an Arizona-type law in the future even if you or your team’s players do not travel to Arizona.

The Arizona legislation introduced numerous laws regarding a person’s immigration status. The following six provisions affect those in the sports world the most:
Protest
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A controversial law in Arizona has elicited protests and challenges, but still requires sports teams to better manage player work authorizations.


1. Allows state law enforcement to enforce immigration laws.

2. Requires law enforcement during a lawful stop, detention or arrest to affirmatively try to determine a person’s immigration status.

3. Makes it a misdemeanor for a non-U.S. citizen to willfully fail to carry documentation showing immigration status.

4. Makes it a misdemeanor to encourage one to enter or remain in the country illegally.

5. Allows law enforcement to make an arrest without a warrant if there is probable cause that the person is “removable” from the United States.

6. Requires Arizona-based employers to track employee work eligibility through the E-Verify system.
Following the passage of the Arizona law, the U.S. Department of Justice sued for an injunction. Numbers 2, 3 and 5 were enjoined, and the matter is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. All of the other provisions of the law are in effect.

Despite the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to temporarily block Arizona from implementing integral parts of the bill, states across the country continue to push ahead with laws similar to what was passed in Arizona. To fully understand why these laws are scary for any non-U.S. citizen or entity employing a non-U.S. citizen to work or visit Arizona, it is important to start by looking at the term “illegal alien.” This term invokes a picture of someone arriving in the United States on a flying saucer. In reality, an illegal alien can be anyone who:

• Works in the United States without work authorization.

• Overstays a visa.

• Does not properly follow the visa process and is in the United States without a proper visa.

• Enters the United States illegally.

• Does some other act, either intentionally or accidently, that results in that person being in the United States illegally.

Therefore, an illegal alien is not always a person who enters the United States illegally. Instead, it can be a person, such as a professional athlete, whose visa process was done incorrectly and plays in games for your professional team and gets paid to do so.

Even though only some provisions of the Arizona law are in effect, sports teams and foreign athletes should be concerned now. If your team fails to properly sponsor athletes for visas, fails to properly renew players’ visas, or employs players, staff, or unpaid interns without proper work authorization, then your team could be subject to criminal and monetary penalties. Similarly, if your athletes or staff are in the United States with an invalid or incorrect visa or are working for your team when they should not be, they are subject to criminal and monetary penalties and possibly deportation.

So how can you protect your team, athletes and staff from criminal or civil prosecution and deportation? Your team significantly lowers these risks by taking the following steps:

1. Make sure that your foreign players are either U.S. citizens, green card holders or have a valid visa that authorizes them to work in the U.S.

2. Understand the visa and green card process and know that your team is responsible for making sure that your players always have authorization to play for your team.

3. Know the law. Make sure that you follow the laws in your state. Some states, such as Arizona, force employers to use E-Verify, an online government program that confirms work authorization.

4. Educate your players and staff about the immigration system and what they need to know when they travel to the states where your team plays games.

5. Hire immigration counsel that is familiar with the needs, demands and intricacies of a professional sports team.
Sports is a fast-paced industry and lends itself to immigration violations. Often teams will pick the quickest path to achieving a goal, even if that path contradicts the law. In the immigration context, this is a dangerous approach.

The recent emphasis in the field of immigration law is compliance, and the Arizona law is a perfect example of this. Taking precautionary steps now can save your team a major headache later.

Keith A. Pabian (kpabian@hrwlawyers.com), an attorney at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP, has represented professional sports leagues and franchises in visa and immigration matters and has worked with professional and Olympic athletes to procure U.S. lawful permanent residency.

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