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Dominican Court Throws MLB a Curve

By Daniel R. Secatore

A recent ruling by the Dominican Republic's highest court has put the citizenship status of hundreds of thousands of people of currently living in the Dominican Republic in a state of legal limbo. The United Nations and humanitarian organizations across the world have condemned the ruling and warned that it could render a significant population of the Dominican Republic stateless. Reverberations from this ruling could potentially be felt throughout the Americas, and in the world of sports, as it threatens to complicate the long relationship between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Dominican Republic, and put yet another obstacle before the dreams of thousands of Dominican baseball players, for whom the national pastime provides a path out of poverty.

On September 23rd, the Dominican Supreme Court of Justice ruled that anyone who was born after 1929 and who does not have at least one parent of Dominican ethnicity is not entitled to Dominican citizenship, regardless of where he or she lives or was born. Reuters estimates that as many as 250,000 people presently living in the Dominican Republic fit this classification. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/12/us-dominicanrepublic-citizenship-idUSBRE99B01Z20131012 Most of these people are of Haitian descent and many were born in the Dominican Republic and have known no other home. The New York Times reports that the Dominican government is working on a plan to grant these people temporary residence permits, but without citizenship, they may still be unable to receive many government benefits including public health insurance, voting rights, and -- most importantly for hopeful ballplayers and MLB -- passports. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/world/americas/dominicans-of-haitian-descent-cast-into-legal-limbo-by-court.html?_r=0

Eighty-nine players born in the Dominican Republic were on MLB rosters on Opening Day of the 2013 season and, according to Alicia Jessop of Forbes, Dominicans make up an estimated one-fourth of all minor league rosters (approximately 1,800 players). http://www.forbes.com/sites/aliciajessop/2013/03/19/the-secrets-behind-the-dominican-republics-success-in-the-world-baseball-classic-and-mlb/ The vast majority of these players enter the United States on nonimmigrant temporary work visas; however, federal law also requires possession of a valid passport for admission into the United States on such visas. (8 USCA § 1182(a)(7)(B)) Thus, if a player is rendered stateless by this ruling, he may not be able to enter the United States to play professional baseball, regardless of his talent. This could impact not only young players who are trying to break into the game for the first time, but also established MLB players who returned to the Dominican Republic after the 2013 season and now lack valid documentation.

Faced with this possible disruption, MLB must be proactive in using the law to protect its stateless players.

There are a number of waivers to the requirement that non-immigrant aliens possess valid passports in order to obtain entry visas. Few of these avenues will be open to stateless players, however. Many of the waivers, for instance, apply only in very specific circumstances, such as the waiver for a landed immigrant in Canada who is traveling to the United States only in emergent circumstances. (22 CFR 41.3(f))

A review of the law does show that a few of the waiver provisions could potentially apply to stateless players.

First, the passport requirement may be waived by the joint action of Attorney General and Secretary of State on the basis of an "unforeseen emergency in individual cases." (8 U.S.C.A. § 1182(d)(4)) The statute does not define "unforeseen emergency", so it is unclear on the face as to whether people who find themselves suddenly stateless are helped by this provision. The Customs and Border Patrol Inspector's Field Manual, however, elaborates on what "unforeseen emergency" may mean, defining it very narrowly such that it only covers things like medical emergencies, natural disasters, and passport theft. (Inspector's Field Manual § 17.5(d)(3)) Thus, while on first glance it appears that this statute may apply to stateless players, it is unlikely to provide relief as it is currently interpreted.

A more promising option is found in a statute granting the State Department discretion to authorize individual consular offices to waive the documentary requirements in the event of "unusual circumstances" prevailing within the consular district. (22 CFR 41.3(g)) Though there is little caselaw elaborating this statute, theoretically it could apply to the stateless players. As this avenue requires discretionary action on the part of the State Department, it is incumbent upon MLB and its lobbying arm in Washington D.C. to be proactive in protecting its Dominican players and the interests of the teams for which they play. The U.S. government may be weary of appearing to show favor to athletes over other categories of nonimmigrant aliens, however MLB may be faced with few other viable options when spring training resumes in February.

As the Dominican government is still reacting to this ruling, it is not yet clear exactly what impact it will have on MLB, the thousands of Dominicans already under contract with MLB teams, and the countless younger Dominican players who are still dreaming of playing in America. Dominican baseball players, including many of Haitian descent, have been a blessing to baseball, as they have come to excel in the game in recent years. MLB must do everything it can to ensure that they are given the chance to continue to do so for years to come.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 5, 2013 11:28 AM.

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