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Ice Dancer Gets a Hand From Sen. Levin

As everyone knows, it’s nice to have friends in high places. Just ask Canadian-born ice dancer Tanith Belbin.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has inserted language in the fiscal 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill that would allow Belbin, 20, to take part in the 2006 Winter Olympics on behalf of the United States. The XXth Olympic Winter Games will be held in Turin, Italy, starting on Feb. 10.

According to Levin’s office, his amendment will “shorten the residency requirement for ‘aliens of extraordinary ability’ from five to three years between the receipt of their green card and the date of their eligibility for naturalization. The amendment would apply to ‘aliens of extraordinary ability’ who began their naturalization process prior to July 2002 and who will be representing the United States at an international event.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reserves the “extraordinary ability” label for those foreigners possessing “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim and whose achievements have been recognized in the field through extensive documentation.”

In other words, if one were to win a Nobel Prize or be a CEO of a huge multinational corporation, he or she would qualify for this exemption. So would a world-class figure skater.

Belbin began skating at the age of 3, according to the biography on her official Web site. She is paired with Ben Agosto, a Chicago native, and the two practice at the Arctic Edge Arena in Canton, Mich.

Belbin, who was born in Quebec, Canada, moved to the Detroit area with her family in 1999. She received an EB-1 (employment-based) visa in November 2000, but did not get her green card until July 2002. Under existing law, Belbin will not be eligible for full U.S. citizenship until 2007, and therefore would be ineligible to compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics as an American. That would severely damage U.S. hopes for an ice-dancing medal.

Immigration rules were changed in 2002 so that an applicant could seek a green card and EB-1 visa at the same time, but Belbin does not qualify for that exemption. If Levin’s amendment becomes law, she will be a U.S. citizen by the end of this year.

For those unfamiliar with ice dancing, the official Olympics Web site describes it as “similar to ballroom dancing.” In ice dancing, “the focus is on the complex steps in time with the music. The skaters maintain contact with each other, limiting lifts and jumps.”

Belbin’s Web site states that “in a discipline traditionally dominated by European teams, Tanith and Ben have successfully managed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field while emerging as one of the world’s best. Their ambitions remain to represent the United States in Olympic and World competition.”

Belbin and Agosto were U.S. champions in ice dancing in 2004 and 2005, and they won a silver in the world championship this year — the best finish for any American ice-dancing tandem in 30 years.

Levin’s office made no bones of the fact that the amendment was aimed at helping Belbin compete in Turin wearing a U.S. uniform, although Maxim Zavozin of Russia, another highly rated figure skater, would also qualify for U.S. citizenship under his proposal. Zavozin and his American partner, Morgan Matthews, are also a top-ranked U.S. ice-dancing team.

Both “Belzin and Zavozin, along with their partners, are favorites to make the 2006 U.S. Olympic team,” according to the U.S. Figure Skating Web site,

“The amendment would benefit an Olympic-eligible ice dancer, Tanith Belbin, born in Canada and currently living in Michigan, who would not have U.S. citizenship in time for the 2006 Olympics without the current legislative proposal,” said Levin’s statement. “Her immigrant worker visa was approved in 2000, but she did not receive her green card until July 2002. Had she received the benefit of the current processing provisions, she would be eligible to represent the U.S. in the 2006 Olympics.”

Belbin is being helped out in her effort to garner U.S. citizenship by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which is working pro bono on her case, according to Barney Skladany, a lobbyist involved with the issue.

The House has not adopted any provision similar to the Levin amendment, and it was unclear at press time if there would be any opposition to his proposal.

The case of Belbin and Zavozin is not the first time that famous athletes have gotten help from Capitol Hill in gaining U.S. citizenship.

Back in 2000, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.) intervened with U.S. immigration officials in a bid to help marathon runner Khalid Khannouchi, a native Moroccan, represent the U.S. in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Schumer’s office and the then Immigration and Naturalization Service got into a nasty spat over Khannouchi’s citizenship application, although Khannouchi was successful in the end in becoming an American. Injuries, however, prevented Khannouchi from taking part in the 2000 games.

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