Iranian athlete denied US visa for not ‘being extraordinary’

JERÉ LONGMAN

When it comes to table tennis, the United States is not exactly a world power. It has never won an Olympic medal. The most visible players in the country are not stars but weekend warriors: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and actress Susan Sarandon. At the elite level, immigrant talent has long been welcomed. The entire American team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was born in China, a dominant power in the sport.

But an immigration case involving an Iranian table tennis player has raised question about exactly what status an international athlete must achieve before being granted preferential entry into the United States. Is it enough to be the best in your own home country? Or must you also be among the best in the world?

On Wednesday, a Federal District Court judge in New York affirmed a decision by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to deny an "extraordinary ability" work visa to Afshin Noroozi, 27, the first table tennis Olympian from Iran. Noroozi had sought the visa on the ground that he was a top international player, having finished 65th at the 2008 Olympics and gained a ranking of 284th in the world.

The Immigration Act of 1990 allows employment visas to be given to those who possess "extraordinary ability" in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. Winning a Nobel Prize, for instance, would signal exceptional achievement. Finishing dozens of places behind the winner in Olympic table tennis apparently makes a less convincing case.

While Noroozi's proficiency was "impressive and commendable, and surely bespeaks years of dedication and practice," Judge Paul A Engelmayer of Federal District Court in Manhattan wrote, the immigration service was "well within its discretion to conclude that Noroozi's standing fell short of making him `one of that small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.' "

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