Carlos Ruiz and America’s Pastime: An Immigrant’s Journey to the Big Leagues

April 1, 2014 | By

Spring is finally here, and with spring, the arrival of America’s game—baseball. In the first week of April, thousands of fans across the country will repeat a similar ritual at the stadiums of Major League Baseball’s thirty teams: fans will stand, remove their hats, place hands on hearts, and sing the National Anthem, surrounded by the smell of popcorn, hot dogs, and cold beer. Then, the first pitch will fly and another season of America’s favorite pastime will be upon us. But few baseball fans ever consider this question: how does a noncitizen get to play professional baseball in the United States? The answer: not easily.

Here in Philadelphia, our beloved Philadelphia Phillies will play their home opener this year on April 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers. Among the Phillies starting lineup is catcher, Carlos Ruiz, born in the small, provincial town of David, Panama. Like so many American boys who have dreamed of playing in the big leagues, Carlos, too, had his sights set on professional baseball. By regulation there are only twenty five players for each of MLB’s thirty teams, and so the competition is fierce for these 750 places. Imagine the odds against Carlos Ruiz making it to starting catcher of one of American’s most vaunted and timeless baseball franchises from his humble beginnings in David, Panama. When he was only seven years old, Ruiz’s father, a policeman, was patrolling in his police jeep when a tire blew out, causing the vehicle to flip, throw him from the car, and then kill him when it fell on top of him in a ditch. To support his family, young Carlos worked as a laborer on a coffee plantation vowing to his mother that he would one day play professional baseball. It’s hard to imagine such a far-fetched tale, except that it actually happened and Carlos has become (according to an article in the July 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated) “the heart and soul” of the Philadelphia Phillies.

The journey from David, Panama, to behind home plate at Citizens Bank Park was extremely difficult for Ruiz, who spent ten years in the minor leagues before being called up in 2006 to play in his first major league game. As difficult as it is for an American kid to make it in the big leagues, a player from a foreign country must work just as hard, be every bit as good, and get permission from the U.S. government to play here. One would think this would not be so complicated or difficult, but in fact the process for getting a visa to play professional baseball is complex, involving a number of factors, such as: limitations on the numbers of visas available in a given year; whether or not the player is actually good enough to have his visa approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS); the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Labor seeking to protect American jobs; whether or not he intends to stay in the U.S. or return home; and whether there is a team that is even interested in sponsoring him.

These are questions that Ruiz would have confronted in 1999, the year he first started playing minor league baseball for the Florida-based Gulf Coast League Phillies, after attending the Phillies baseball academy for a year in the Dominican Republic. According to U.S. immigration law, foreign athletes of extraordinary ability may apply for an O-1 or a P-1 visa. The O visa classification provides admission to the United States for persons with extraordinary ability in athletics, sciences, arts, education, or business and is awarded for an initial period of a maximum of three years. An extension of stay may be authorized in increments of up to one year. The P visa is similar and is available to athletes (and others) who enjoy “international recognition,” defined as “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.”  P visas are awarded for an initial period of five years, renewable once for a second five-year period. Both the O and P visa require an employer to petition the U.S. government on the alien’s behalf. Both visas are nonimmigrant visas and before the expiration of the visa holder’s period of stay, he must: (1) change status to another nonimmigrant visa category; (2) adjust status to that of permanent resident; or (3) return to his home country.

Either the O visa or the P visa is the most obvious choice for a ball team that wishes to sponsor a foreign athlete to play professional sports in this country. However, in 1999 there were no visas readily available specifically for minor league ball players who had not yet achieved recognition as athletes of extraordinary ability or enjoyed international recognition. Ruiz, like many other minor league players at the time, may have entered the GCL on an H2B visa—a seasonal, nonimmigrant employment visa for nonagricultural services or labor on a one-time, seasonal, or intermittent basis. The H2B visa process is notoriously riddled with paperwork and there are only a limited number of such visas available each year, thus severely limiting the ability of professional ball teams to recruit foreign talent.

However, in 2006 the Bush administration signed the “Creating Opportunities for Minor League Professionals, Entertainers, and Teams through Legal Entry Act of 2006” (“COMPETE Act of 2006”), which expanded the P-1 nonimmigrant visa classification to allow certain amateur and semi-professional international athletes and coaches to qualify for temporary work visas, thus, giving them an opportunity to participate and compete in sports in the United States. The COMPETE Act of 2006 has been a great benefit to minor league sports and has swelled the ranks of foreign players on minor league teams. However, in 1999 Carlos Ruiz could not benefit from the COMPETE Act and so he likely struggled for his first several years on a seasonal H2B, returning to Panama in the off season so as to avoid unlawful presence in the United States and possibly jeopardizing his chances at future visa approvals.

Before the 2006 season, Ruiz played for his native Panama in the first World Baseball Classic. In his final season in the minor leagues, he hit .307 with 16 home runs and 69 RBIs, earning International League all-star accolades, and in May of that year he made his major league debut.  In 2007, Ruiz joined the major league roster for good. Having clearly demonstrated both extraordinary ability and international acclaim, Ruiz certainly qualified for an O or a P visa. Since 2007 Carlos Ruiz has earned his spot as one of the Phillies most highly respected players and among the best catchers in the major leagues.

When a star athlete like Ruiz has achieved national and international acclaim, performing consistently, over time, at the top of his field of endeavor, he may seek permanent resident status as a first preference, employment-based immigrant visa (green card) holder. As a means of attracting foreign talent, Congress created the EB-1 (Employment Based – First Preference) visa category for aliens of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics. This visa is also available to outstanding professors and researchers who are recognized internationally for their outstanding academic achievements in a particular field. Some executives and managers of foreign companies who are transferred to the U.S. may also qualify for this visa. With some exceptions, other employment-based immigrant visa classifications require a job offer by a bona fide employer, and a lengthy process of obtaining a Department of Labor certification that an American worker will not be displaced for the position offered. But extraordinary ability aliens may “self-petition” for the EB-1, meaning they can apply for the visa on their own, without requiring an employer petition, a job offer, or a DOL certification. Many foreign actors, athletes, musicians, scientists, and others of international acclaim are able to become permanent residents in this way and the EB-1 visa category is one of the ways the United States continues to attract and retain top international talent.

Having achieved his status as one of the top catchers in the major leagues, Carlos Ruiz would have qualified for an EB-1 immigrant visa and become a permanent resident. He would not have required the Phillies to petition for him or have proof of a job offer. Instead, his own well-documented star quality would have qualified him for a green card. As a permanent resident, Ruiz can reside permanently in the United States, travel freely in and out of the country, work for any employer, and, after a period of five years, apply for naturalization (citizenship). As a citizen, he may sponsor any immediate relative (parent, spouse, or unmarried child under 21) to immigrate immediately as a permanent resident without having to wait for a visa to become available. Naturalized citizens enjoy all the same benefits as any native born citizen, including the right to vote.

Ruiz’s journey to major league baseball is an American dream fit for a Spielberg movie:  Fatherless at seven, doing farm labor to support his family, promising his mother he would someday play professional baseball. Over the next thirteen years he practiced, worked hard, and kept his eye on the ball—joining the Phillies minor league system first in the Dominican Republic, then the Gulf Coast League in Florida, then the Reading and Wilkes-Barre farm teams, then, finally, on that magical day in April 2007, Ruiz started his first full season in the major leagues—his promise to his mother was fulfilled. There is an immigration law back story to this journey: Ruiz did what so many other foreign ball players have done—started with a non-immigrant H2B, O, or P visa, advancing to permanent residence, and, eventually, American citizenship. Ruiz’s journey is an immigrant’s dream come true and one that expresses that quintessentially American experience of traveling far from home to make a better life for himself and his family. On April 7 at Citizens Bank Park , opening day to this most American of traditions, you can be sure that when the first lines to the national anthem begin, Carlos Ruiz’s hat will be off, hand on heart, and he will sing with thousands of others, “Oh, say can you see . . . ?” And quietly the answer resounds, “Yes.”

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