Soccer & Citizenship

As an immigration and naturalization attorney and a die-hard soccer fan, I am often in a position of explaining to my fellow fans what qualifies a certain player United States Men’s National Team (“USMNT”). The global popularity of soccer and the relative ease of obtaining a United States passport means that much of the US player base was born or has connections abroad. That could mean being born abroad to US parent(s) or becoming a naturalized US citizen. Either way, eligibility to play for the US is a possibility.

Perhaps more importantly, many soccer pundits posit that the USMNT achieves better results when it fields foreign-born players. A position made more poignant by the USMNT’s recent elimination from World Cup qualification by the heavy underdogs Trinidad & Tobago. The USMNT’s roster that night contained only 2 foreign-born players, both of whom play in Major League Soccer (“MLS”) teams in the US. In contrast the USMNT’s 2014 World Cup roster (a team that eliminated Portugal and nearly beat European powerhouse Belgium) contained 7 players either born or raised abroad, including goal scorers Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, and Julian Green. The debate about whether to use dual nationals on the USMNT national teams shows no sign of cessation.

FIFA Rules:

FIFA, the entity that regulates international soccer, has promulgated rules about eligibility for dual-national and foreign-born players. Specifically, Article 15 of the FIFA statutes allow an individual to play for any nation in which they hold permanent nationality, generally represented by possessing a passport. However, pursuant to Article 16, if a player has two nationalities, they can only play for a nation if they (1) were born there, (2) had a parent or grandparent born there, or (3) have lived in the nation continuously for at least 2 years. Article 17 allows a player to be fielded after acquiring a new nationality if they have lived there continuously for 5 years after the age of 18, or if they, their parents, or their grandparents were born in the subject nation. Finally, Article 18 allows dual-national players to switch between nations if they have not played a senior level competitive match for either nationality (a process referred to as a “cap-tie”). Notably, players can play for one nation at the youth level or in a senior level friendly (non-competitive) match, and still switch before making their competitive debut.

United States Nationality Law:
Pursuant to the 14th Amendment and Immigration and Nationality Act §§ 301 and 309, US law allows citizenship at birth through two methods: jus sanguinis (meaning birth through having a US citizen parent) and jus soli (meaning citizenship through being born on US soil). Citizenship acquisition through jus soli is routine and largely requires possessing a US birth certificate. Establishing citizenship through having a US citizen parent requires more than simply having a parent who is a US citizen. In fact, some applications can be quite complex. Specifically, the applicant must show that the US parent resided in the United States for at least 5 years in his or her lifetime and that 2 of those years occurred subsequent to the parent turning 14. Additionally, if the parents were unmarried at the time of the applicant’s birth, the applicant must prove a blood relationship and an agreement by the father to provide support for the child.

Citizenship through naturalization generally starts with obtaining “Permanent Resident Status” (colloquially known as a “Green Card”). Permanent Resident Status can be obtained a number of ways, the most common of which are (1) marriage to a US Citizen, and (2) an employer-sponsored application. Once a Permanent Resident has resided in the United States for 5 years (or 3 years in the case of a spouse of a US citizen) they can then apply for US citizenship. This process generally involves a background check, an English exam and a US civics and history exam.

Some USMNT Examples:
Christian Pulisic – The wonder kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania, was born and raised in the United States to US parents and, therefore, obtained US Citizenship through jus soli. It is notable that he was able to obtain a Croatian passport through his immigrant grandfather that allowed him to play in European leagues before the age of 18. A rarity for US-born players as EU labor law prevents non-EU minors from playing in European leagues.

Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler, John Brooks – Sometimes collectively referred to as the “Germaricans”, each of these players was born and raised in Germany to US serviceman fathers and German mothers thereby receiving citizenship through jus sanguinis. All but Chandler played for Germany at the youth level and made the switch to the United States at the senior level.

Jonathan Gonzalez: the California-born 18-year-old is regarded as one of the best players in North America. He was born in California to Mexican-National parents, making him eligible to play for both the United States and Mexico. He has represented the United States at the youth level. Unfortunately, for the United States, in January 2018 Jonathan Gonzalez announced his intention to switch allegiances to play for the Mexican National Team.

Dom Dwyer – The British-born striker obtained US nationality and a spot on the US national team at age 26. His marriage to United States Women’s National Team striker, Sydney Leroux, opened the path to Permanent Residence and expedited citizenship.

Dalington Nagbe – The Liberian-born midfielder came to the United States at age 11 after seeking refugee status from his civil war-ravaged homeland. Although his father, Joe Nagbe, was one of the best soccer players in the history of Liberia, Darlington is a naturalized US citizen and has become a fixture on the USMNT.

How we can help?
You do not need to be a soccer great for the attorneys at Bunger & Robertson to assist you or a loved one in your naturalization or Permanent Resident application. Bunger & Robertson immigration attorneys have assisted a myriad of individuals in obtaining their citizenship or US Permanent Residence. If you feel you may have a path forward please contact Bunger & Robertson attorneys to arrange a consultation.