US cracks down on GAA stars

US IMMIGRATION authorities are adopting a new hard-line attitude to GAA players travelling to America on weekend passes.

Authorities are turning back players without visas, because they suspect the GAA stars are travelling to the US to make money, which requires a specific H1 or temporary worker papers.

The move comes during the heaviest period of trans-Atlantic travel for the closing stages of the GAA Championships in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago.

The latest GAA stars to be turned back included Kilkenny All-Ireland-winning duo Michael Kavanagh and Derek Lyng, who did not leave from Shannon airport last Saturday. Their Cats colleague John Hoyne had been cleared to travel for Sunday's semi-final play off at Gaelic Park between Waterford and Westmeath, but made his way back from the plane when he realised his two team-mates were missing.

All had the necessary documentation, and two were travelling for the first time, with Kavanagh the only previous weekend traveller.

"I was there before and there was no bother in going through, but this was different. We were taken aside, into a room one at a time. The official seemed to have her mind made up already. As soon as we entered the room, she was having none of it, told another lad to pull our bags off the plane, that we weren't travelling that was before we produced any papers or anything," Kavanagh said.

"She gave us the details after a while, about why we were being refused and what we'd have to do in future. We were told we required a special visa, because we'd be playing in front of a paid attendance," he said.

US Embassy officials yesterday confirmed they were taking a hard-line approach to weekend GAA players heading for the US.

"If it's an entirely amateur situation, an amateur sportsperson going to an amateur team, no money changing hands in terms of sponsorship, salary, or entrance fee at the gate to see the games, then no visa is required. But if there is any professional aspect involved, then they do need a visa, and that is normally an 'H' visa, the details of which can be found in the website, www.usembassy.ie," a spokesperson said.

According to the spokesperson, though all individuals were treated on a case-by-case basis, if it was determined that someone was going to New York's Gaelic Park to play a game, a H visa was required.

Added an Immigration and Naturalisation Service official: "It's nothing new, though it is a grey area. If there are fees being charged, tickets being sold, if someone is making a profit, they are not allowed go over without the appropriate visa. It doesn't make any difference if the individual isn't making money if they're playing for an organisation that's making money, then that organisation has to petition for them, and they have to go in as a H1, or a temporary worker."

Immigration authorities were dubious about claims that no players were profiting from their weekend visits.

"We've had people come up here, and you find a letter, come across documentation, or they might even tell you themselves, that they're getting paid. We're not naive enough to believe some people don't get through, but then they're not telling us what they're going over for. If they say they're going to visit their sister or whatever, we don't catch them all the time, unfortunately.

"To be safe, if they're going over and there's any money involved, then they should have the visa".

A further consequence of last weekend's decision was that Waterford were unable to field a team (five student players returned to Ireland), had to forfeit the game, and now face possible suspension and fines by the New York board.

Mystified Waterford manager Jimmy Duggan explained: "Everything was above board, as it was all year for us; we sent the official invitation from the Waterford club, the tickets, they had letters from their employers, the sanctions, everything. They arrived in Shannon on Saturday morning, and three of them were shot down, with very little explanation as to why.

"From what I understand from the boys, the moment they showed their passports they were in trouble, they were going nowhere, and apparently one immigration officer told them that no matter which way they had come, they'd have been stopped," Duggan said.

"What I don't understand is that at least 15 other weekend players got through, along with all the 60-day sanction players (mostly students who go out for the summer holidays) why were our lads singled out?"

Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories abound, with suggestions of phone calls having been made to the US Immigration Authorities in Shannon.

New York GAA president Monty Moloney told the New York-based Irish Voice newspaper: "It's a very serious situation, I'd like to know the percentage of those stopped last weekend. It's too much of a coincidence, after certain problems we've had of late with our governing body in Croke Park (a reference to the temporary halting of all weekend sanctions recently). This does not look good or fair to most observers. Why are so many GAA players being stopped all of a sudden? The INS seems to have privileged information on certain players".

GAA chiefs in Croke Park said yesterday they were not aware of the problem.

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