MLB players aided through visa process but families face roadblocks

Johnny Cueto of the San Francisco Giants had to go through some machinations to get a visa for his ailing father. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

There’s a human side to every diplomatic or political decision.

For professional athletes who need visas to play in the United States that side can be found here: It’s becoming increasingly harder in the current political climate to bring along their families.

When San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto was ready to travel from the Dominican Republic to spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2017, his then 71-year-old father, Domingo, suddenly became ill. Doctors told Cueto that his father was facing kidney failure and brain damage because of what they described as a mini stroke. He was hospitalized for 10 days.

“He was talking nonsense,” Cueto said at the time. “He was just not right. He was not recognizing anybody.”

It made sense for Cueto to remain in the Dominican. The Giants had procured a P-1 work visa for Cueto, which is typical of the way Major League Baseball handles immigration for their major- and minor-league players.

In Cueto’s case, he and his people had to arrange for a tourist visa, so his father could accompany him to the U.S. Cueto arrived 19 days after the other pitchers and catchers, missing a chance to play with Team Dominican in the World Baseball Classic. There were delays in renewing his father’s passport and obtaining the necessary tourist visa.

The team worked with him as Cueto threw batting practice to teenagers at their training facility in Santo Domingo. His father was moved to a nearby hospital from San Pedro de Macoris, making it easier for Cueto to attend to his family and get in shape for the season.

“So, it was pretty serious, and because I am the head of the family, I felt that I needed to stay there just to make sure that nothing worse happened to him,” Cueto said. “If I was to report when I was supposed to report, and something did happen to my dad, then it would have been worse to go back, taking into account the distance. I talked to the general manager, the manager, the pitching coach, and got their blessing to stay behind and take care of the family, as long as I did my workout at the academy.”

Because of the delays, Cueto never got up to speed. He slumped from 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts during the 2016 season to 8-8 with a 4.52 ERA in 25 starts in 2017. In his second season with the team with an opt-out clause after 2017, he didn’t opt out.

He’s back with the Giants this season. But he had the solace that his father obtained the visa and was healthy enough to be able to travel with him to the U.S., where he fully recovered.

The Visa Process

There are numerous ways for foreign employees to enter the U.S., but the most common path for professional athletes in every sport is the P-1 visa, approved by the State Department and issued by the U.S. consulate in each of the originating countries.

According to the official U.S. Citizenship and Immigration website, an athlete in team sports is eligible for one reason only.

“You must be coming to the United States to participate in team events and must have achieved significant international recognition in the sport. The event in which your team is participating must be distinguished and require the participation of athletic teams of international recognition.”

Typically, a team signs a player to a contract and the P-1 visa allows that player to remain eligible in the U.S., during the length of the contract. At the end of the season (or contract), that athlete must go home.

“The individual teams arrange for the visas of their players,” said Jack Bair, the Giants’ long-time executive vice president of legal and government affairs. “And baseball has an immigration expert available to help. It’s fairly simple. Most players are brought over on P-1 visas and its fairly routine.”

“For major league players it’s usually tied to the contract they have. If they have a multiyear contract, they can usually get a P-1 visa for that multiyear period, but so many of the teams just sign one-year contracts, so they only get one-year visas. "
- Bob Hill, immigration attorney

“It’s now been since 2006 that even the minor-league players get the P-1 visa,” said Bob Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration attorney who works with 11 major league clubs regarding visa issues. “Large numbers of players who get these visas every year have no problems. If they’re connected to a team for five or six years, they’ll get a visa to cover that period of time.”

Last month, MLB reported that 27 percent of its 877 players either on the active 25-man rosters, the disabled list and other restricted lists as of opening day were foreign born. Excluding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands because those players are U.S. citizens, there are 234 foreign-born players in big-league uniforms this season.

Comparatively, the National Basketball Association has 108 players from 42 countries on their rosters, 28.6 percent. In the National Hockey League, 80 percent of players come from Canada and the U.S., with the remaining 20 percent hailing from European countries and Russia. Of that 80 percent, 46 percent are from Canada. The NHL was still 74 percent Canadian as late as 1990.  

In the NFL, foreign-born players account for only 2.6 percent, which makes sense since that kind of football isn’t played much outside of the U.S.

“For major league players it’s usually tied to the contract they have,” Hill said. “If they have a multiyear contract, they can usually get a P-1 visa for that multiyear period, but so many of the teams just sign one-year contracts, so they only get one-year visas.  

“Frankly, even with the multiyear contracts, you’ll find that many of the teams in house only file petitions for one-year visas. I’ve tried to counsel them to petition for the duration of the contract. Some of them do and some of them don’t.”

The Cuban issue hasn’t been resolved

Yasiel Puig had to escape Cuba through a third country to apply for his visa to play major league baseball. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Even under loosened travel restrictions enacted during the Obama administration, Cuban players couldn’t apply directly to the U.S. for a P-1 visa to play in the majors. They must escape the island nation to another Latin American country and apply from there.

Before he was signed in 2012 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Yasiel Puig endured a harrowing journey. He was whisked to the Yucatan Peninsula off the east coast of Mexico by speed boat. His escape was fraught with the peril of payments to smugglers and the threat to Puig’s life and limb.

It was worth it. Puig ultimately signed a seven-year, $42 million contact after the Dodgers saw him participate in a batting practice session. He exploded on MLB and had a .319 batting average, 19 homers and 42 RBIs playing just 104 games in 2013 when he was runner-up Rookie of the Year in the National League.

Puig’s plight is pretty typical of other star Cuban baseball players who have made it in the U.S.

“They have to flee to a third country,” Hill said. “For a long time, they were going to the Dominican Republic, but there was some fraud there. That was shut down on them. The most common one recently has been Haiti.”

The Cubans are seeking a posting compensation system of payment from MLB clubs similar to the ones in force with Japan and South Korea. At present, teams in the professional leagues of the Asian countries can receive a transaction fee of $20 million if a restricted free agent is posted and then signed by a major league team.

That was the case late last year when two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani was signed by the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels paid the Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League $20 million for the rights to sign Ohtani.  

Thus far, no such agreement has been reached between MLB and the Cuban government, which still pays players a token monthly stipend. Japan and Cuba do have a working agreement.

Family restrictions

Of course, Cuban players who flee to play in the U.S. must leave many of their family members behind for long periods of time.

In 2004, for example, Jose Contras had been pitching for the New York Yankees and after 21 months, his wife and two young daughters were able to defect to the U.S. and finally join him.

Like Puig, Contreras’ family was among a group of 21 Cubans who left on a 31-foot boat. They arrived safely in Miami.

Because of political turmoil in Venezuela, players haven’t had problems obtaining their P-1 visas to play ball in the majors, but bringing along family members has certainly become much more problematic.

"If I was to report when I was supposed to report, and something did happen to my dad, then it would have been worse to go back, taking into account the distance. I talked to the general manager, the manager, the pitching coach, and got their blessing to stay behind and take care of the family, as long as I did my workout at the academy.” - San Francisco Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto

An athlete’s wife and children are usually eligible for a P-4 visa, but extended families are an issue.

“They want to bring extensive families, parents and siblings, and cousins,” Hill said. “They can’t get dependent visas. It’s very difficult. The consulate in Caracas has limited the issuance of tourist visas to those that have had them. Many of those people have also had to go to third countries to apply.”

Such was the case with the Giants’ Cueto when he tried to get a tourist visa for his ill father last year. There were hoops he and his people had to go through before the consulate in the Dominican would issue that visa.

Delays for players getting their P-1 visas are usually brought on by teams failing to file the necessary paperwork early enough. One of the State Department’s requirements is a written statement from an appropriate union, in this case, the MLB Players Association, which is a required part of the process for each Major Leaguer.

In the Dominican, it’s also difficult to get tourist visas, Hill said.

“But that’s historic, because so many Dominicans have come and remained here after getting visas to enter the U.S.,” Hill said. “They require pretty specific information about an intent to return. That’s a normal process in every country. They have to be able to show that they’re going to go back.”

Barry M. Bloom has been a baseball writer since 1976, and a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1992. His sometimes award-winning national reports and columns appeared on MLB.com for the past 16 years, until recently. He’s now a contributing columnist for Forbes.com