Can a history of extraordinary athletic ability help sports coaches work in the USA?

Can a history of extraordinary athletic ability help sports coaches work in the USA?
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 By Heather Frayre

In immigration law in the United States (U.S.), there is a special category through which certain individuals who possess “extraordinary ability” may pursue permanent residency in the U.S.. 

Over the years, many highly accomplished foreign athletes seeking to continue their careers as coaches in the U.S. (“athlete-turned-coaches”) have been denied extraordinary ability classification because of the seeming reluctance of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to recognize achievements as an athlete as part of the extraordinary ability analysis for a coach. 

However, in a recent (albeit non-precedent) decision, Matter of K-S-Y-, USCIS appears to be more receptive to considering athletic achievements as part of the eligibility calculus for a coach, and provides more definitive guidance as to how athletic achievements ought to be weighed.

This article explores:

  • The “extraordinary ability” framework for U.S. immigration
  • The athlete-turned-coach dilemma – proving past “extraordinary ability” is relevant and that you are continuing to work in your “field of endeavor
  • The USCIS’s balancing test for assessing “extraordinary ability” (and its limitations)
  • The decision in Matter of K-S-Y-: a step in the right direction?
  • Author’s comments


The Extraordinary Ability Framework

Normally, in order to seek lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. through employment, an individual must be sponsored by an employer through a process called a labor certification.1 Before the employer can submit an application for labor certification, it must perform a fairly rigorous test of the job market to ensure there are no willing and/or qualified U.S. workers who are able to perform the job. 

There are a few special categories of foreign nationals who can bypass this step, including those who qualify as individuals with extraordinary ability in business, science, arts, education or athletics. Not only do individuals with extraordinary ability get to bypass the labor certification, they can also self-petition without employer sponsorship. Further, the extraordinary ability category is attractive because there have historically been very minimal backlogs, so the pathway to permanent residency may be a matter of months versus a matter of years for the traditional employee.

Extraordinary ability is defined as “a level of expertise indicating that the individual is one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.2 An individual who possesses such extraordinary ability may seek permanent residency by filing a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In that petition, the applicant (or beneficiary, if the petition is filed by an employer) must demonstrate that he or she has sustained national or international acclaim by providing evidence of a major one-time achievement or by demonstrating the qualifications to satisfy at least three of ten criteria set forth in the regulations.3 Individuals may self-petition, but they must demonstrate that they continue work in their field of endeavor upon becoming a lawful permanent resident.4


The Athlete-Turned-Coach Dilemma: Continuing their “Field of Endeavor

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Written by

Heather Frayre

Heather Frayre

Heather Frayre is an associate specialising in immigration in Dykema Cox Smith's Dallas office.


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