Friday, June 18, 2010

Visa problems plague Grandma's runners

By: Kevin Pates, Duluth News Tribune

Much of Joseph Mutinda’s life is spent on a six-acre farm in Machakos, Kenya, raising beans, bananas, potatoes and maize, and 10 cows. He and his wife have sons ages 5 and 8.

When Mutinda travels, he’s making money as a runner, which is a lifeline to his existence. Getting to a race destination is critical and obtaining a visa makes it possible.

Yet there’s nothing automatic about securing a visa to come to the United States as a professional athlete. Last year, seven Kenyan men were unable to complete the process in hopes of competing in the 2009 Grandma’s Marathon, including defending champion Lamech Mokono.

The 2010 Grandma’s Marathon on Saturday already is missing three runners, two from Kenya and one from Ethiopia, including two men who have the best previous times in the field of 7,387 entrants. They ran out of time in the visa process when more documentation than expected was required.

Mutinda, 35, has been training in Santa Fe, N.M., the past three months with the AmeriKenyan Running Club and leaves for home the day after Grandma’s Marathon. He was granted a P-1 visa in 2007 and competed in Grandma’s in 2008.

“My running is very serious for our life at home and to help bring up our children, and care for others in our family,” Mutinda said last week. “Having a visa allows me to come and go to the U.S., maybe two or three times a year.”

A prize money purse of $80,000 is offered at Grandma’s Marathon, shared among the top 10 men and women. The winners earn $10,000. Brad Poore, a runner and lawyer from Auburn, Calif., representing a handful of Kenyan-based athletes, estimates the majority of Kenyan runners earn between $5,000 and $15,000 annually from the sport, which is a significant paycheck to bring home.

“That money can be the difference between living a reasonable life and living on the edge of death for some Kenyans,” Poore said.

Visa specifics

Foreign runners can travel in the United States on P-1 or B-1 visas. As listed on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, the P-1 is for a professional athlete and can be issued for up to five years, while the B-1 is for a visitor on business and is for six to 12 months. According to athlete agents and managers, runners are being pointed toward the P-1 visas after years of applying for either.

“The visa process can take a long time, but in the end, the State Department wants to know the purpose of someone’s travel, and that’s a good thing,” said Scott Robinson, an agent and director of the AmeriKenyan Running Club. “But we are required to provide a lot of documentation about the ability of the athlete and a schedule of events, and that can take some time and money.”

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services spokesman Tim Counts, based in Bloomington, Minn., said the P-1 process takes about 60 days and has a filing fee of $320. A premium, sped-up process costing $1,000 can be completed in 15 days. In almost all cases, runners require a lawyer or agent to compile the paperwork, which means a fee of about $2,000 to $2,500 (which would include the filing fee), said Poore, who has two runners entered in Grandma’s Marathon.

Required documents include a written invitation from a race organizer, a race itinerary and a race resume indicating previous performances. Robinson said he recently needed 10 months to complete the process for a runner.

The State Department is interested in knowing that an athlete is a legitimate elite competitor and has arranged with race organizers to compete in the United States. It’s also important that the athlete will be taken care of while in America, including airfare, lodging and food.

“You have to develop a biography, and good references to vouch for the athlete so that (the State Department) knows the runner is legitimate. The more documentation the better, and that can end up to be a huge package of information,” said Tom Long of Valparaiso, Ind., a runner agent.

When the State Department approves a visa, the paperwork is sent to the runner at home and the athlete makes an appointment for final approval at an American embassy — such as Nairobi in Kenya and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Mutinda said his appointment took about five minutes, although he was carefully scrutinized.

Last year, Kenyan Benson Cheruiyot, one of Long’s runners, couldn’t get a visa to come to Duluth, but was approved for a P-1 in December and will be here Saturday. The largest international contingent of runners in the 34th Grandma’s Marathon is from Africa, including 29 athletes from Kenya.

Still waiting

Ethiopian Abebe Degefa, 26, who has a marathon best of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 52 seconds, planned to be in the United States for the first time Saturday, but his agent in Turkey, Shemsu Lalego, said by e-mail he was surprised when asked for detailed P-1 documentation. Degefa did not get a visa.

Francis Kipketer of Kenya was to make his American racing debut last year at Grandma’s Marathon. His brother-in-law, David Rono of Duluth, helped facilitate the visa process, but it couldn’t be worked out. The same thing happened this year, when additional P-1 documentation was needed.

“We worked for two months and still it was not enough time,” said Rono, 24, a native of Eldoret, Kenya, who will attend St. Scholastica this fall. “We finally got a copy of another runner’s P-1 petition and now we know what is needed.”

Foreign runners have won 13 of the last 14 men’s titles at Grandma’s Marathon, including nine by Kenyan athletes.

Defending champion Chris Raabe of Washington, D.C., a Minnesota native, will wear bib No. 1 on Saturday. The next 11 numbers have been issued to runners from Kenya, Ethiopia or Tanzania.