Visa issue, which threatened start of Georgia Swarm season, is resolved

Artist renderings show the former Infinite Energy Arena rebranded as Gas South Arena, following the acquisition of Infinite Energy by Gas South. The arena is the home of the Georgia Swarm lacrosse team.

Credit: Courtesy of Gas South

Credit: Courtesy of Gas South

Artist renderings show the former Infinite Energy Arena rebranded as Gas South Arena, following the acquisition of Infinite Energy by Gas South. The arena is the home of the Georgia Swarm lacrosse team.

The Georgia Swarm, the Gwinnett County-based team in the National Lacrosse League, will begin its season as scheduled Saturday after resolving a visa issue that threatened to force cancellation of the game.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Nov. 19 denied the Swarm’s petition for P-1A (athlete) visas for 22 of its players from Canada, a decision that would have left the team without enough players to open the season. But USCIS reconsidered Monday and approved the Swarm’s petition, ending a nerve-wracking 10-day period for team officials.

“It was a huge sigh of relief,” Swarm co-owner and president Andy Arlotta said moments after learning of the reversal. “It had been a lot of work (to try to get the earlier decision changed), and it would have been a lot more work to find an alternative date to reschedule if we’d had to cancel Saturday’s game. We were already working with the arena and the league on makeup dates. That’s how close we were to having to cancel.”

The Nov. 19 letter from USCIS said the Swarm was denied its visa request because “the evidence you submitted is insufficient” to meet the standard of establishing the team’s players as “internationally recognized” athletes or, alternatively, “professional athletes” in a league with more than $10 million in annual revenue.

Elizabeth Klarin, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based immigration lawyer representing the Swarm, argued the players clearly met both of those standards. Last week, she filed a new petition with additional information.

“We sent letters from the National Lacrosse League explaining why there’s going to be deep financial harm and public-relations issues for the team should it have to cancel its first game,” Klarin said. “We sent a letter from the Gwinnett Chamber about the economic impact to the county.”

The Swarm also contacted the offices of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, among others, about the issue last week.

“We appreciate there were several offices involved in assisting with this,” Klarin said Monday. “This was obviously a very important issue, considering how many resources were able and willing to jump in. … We are really grateful USCIS was willing to take another look.

“I was dancing around my office, quite frankly,” upon learning of the reversal, she said.

The Swarm, which won the NLL championship in 2017, faced this issue as the league prepares to resume play for the first time since shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The remainder of that season and all of the next season were canceled. The league now approaches the 2021-22 season with a new national TV contract with ESPN, and Arlotta said the Swarm has a new local TV contract in the works.

The team has been holding training camp in Canada and is scheduled to fly to Atlanta on Thursday in advance of Saturday’s 7 p.m. opener against the Colorado Mammoth at Gas South Arena, formerly known as Infinite Energy Arena.

The Swarm was mystified by the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ original denial of visas because the other eight U.S. teams in the 14-team NLL already had their requests approved.

“The difference is that most of the teams’ petitions were filed with the Vermont Service Center, while the Swarm had to go through the California Service Center,” Klarin said. “It just depends on where your headquarters are.

“One of the big issues is that USCIS continues to refuse to acknowledge that lacrosse is a major-league sport. ... If they would simply acknowledge lacrosse as a major-league sport, approval would likely be much more straightforward” because the Vermont Service Center, which is most experienced in sports-related cases as the processor of P-1 petitions for all major leagues, would handle all NLL teams’ requests.

Klarin said efforts will continue to get USCIS to designate lacrosse a major-league sport “to avoid this type of confusion in the future.”