U.S. Immigration Policy: Encouraging a Soccer Pipeline from Cuba?

By Ben Berger

On July 9, 2005, Maykel Galindo, a forward on the Cuban National Soccer Team, walked away from his team hotel in Seattle and soon after sought asylum in the United States.  By 2007, Galindo was the fifth leading scorer in Major League Soccer (MLS) (for an excellent feature on Galindo, see Jonah Freedman’s article on si.com).  On March 14, 2008, seven members of Cuba’s U-23 National Team slipped out out their Tampa hotel during the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.  Within weeks, at least three of these players were trying out with the LA Galaxy for a chance to join David Beckham and Landon Donovan on MLS’ most notorious side.  The players were ultimately signed by minor league soccer teams in the U.S.

While there are visa rules and procedures for athletes seeking to ply their trade in the U.S., Cuba presents an interesting exception.  The “Wet feet, dry feet” policy, established by the Clinton Administration, is unique to Cuba and permits any Cuban who makes it to U.S. shores to remain in the U.S. (See Cuban Adjustment Act).  Thus, players who walk away from international competitions in the U.S. are afforded the opportunity to immediately seek work in the United States.  In addition to an escape from Castro, these asylum seekers have an opportunity to earn huge wage increases by coming to the U.S.

The Cuban exception has long been a point of contention for immigration activists, but from a soccer perspective Cuba is unique for other reasons.  Soccer players in Central and South America countries typically play in well-funded leagues and earn ample salaries.  Soccer is a “first choice” sport for many in these countries and provides an avenue for financial success.  Talented players in these regions are actively scouted by MLS and European leagues and often transfer to well-known teams around the world.  Thus, there is little reason for a soccer player in, say Mexico, to emigrate to the U.S. (legally or illegally), as Mexican soccer salaries are typically higher than MLS salaries.  Conversely, Cuba is a baseball country and soccer salaries compare to those of other Cuban professions.  Cuban leagues are not particularly well-scouted.  Accordingly, an escape to the U.S. may a Cuban player’s best opportunity to to pursue a career in professional soccer. 

Whether additional players will follow in Galindo’s footsteps remains to be seen.  But his story, and that of those who followed him, presents an interesting sidenote to our current Cuban immigration policy.

Attorney Ben Berger, an avid fan of soccer and MLS, is an attorney at Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, in Hartford, Connecticut.  Ben can be reached at bberger@uks.com or 860-548-2636.


  1. Chester says:

    I had no idea there was that level of Cuban interest in the sport. Thanks for the info.

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  1. […] defection of Cuban soccer players to the U.S. and the interesting immigration issues it presented.  https://ctsportslaw.com/2008/05/06/us-immigration-policy-encouraging-a-soccer-pipeline-from-cuba/.  Well last week, the pipeline continued as two more Cuban soccer players escaped to US while in […]

  2. […] U.S. Immigration Policy: Encouraging a Soccer Pipeline from Cuba? […]

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