WASHINGTON – The next big Dominican baseball prospect won’t face a limit on his playing career in the United States, now that U.S. immigration officials have agreed to let foreign athletes keep playing here as long as they leave the country after 10 years and apply for a new visa.

The change came in a new policy memo issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, following months of lobbying by sports leagues and lawyers for foreign athletes. The memo, obtained Monday by The Associated Press, also came after the AP made inquiries to the agency about the limit.

The leagues and lawyers had complained that the agency recently began enforcing a 10-year limit, endangering the U.S. careers of foreign athletes. Agency officials countered that they’ve enforced the limit for years, which is based on a 1990 immigration law.

Foreign athletes participate in pro sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey and golf. They can come to the U.S. and play under what’s known as a P-1 visa, which is for internationally recognized athletes or members of internationally recognized entertainment groups.

Under the old regulations, recipients could get five years on the visa and extend it once for another five years, not to exceed a total of 10 years.

The new policy will require foreign athletes, at the end of 10 years, to leave the country before applying for a new visa. That’s not expected to be much of a burden for the athletes, many of whom return to their home country in the offseason.

Agency spokesman Bill Wright said that the memo was issued following interest in the policy from sports leagues and the AP.

“There’s absolutely no reason why the agency can’t clarify the standing policy,” Wright said. “It was something that needed to be done.”

Major League Baseball and other pro sports were worried that the 10-year limit would dent some of their players’ careers, especially those who spend several seasons in the minor leagues. While the sports couldn’t point to any athletes who have been kept out because of the policy, they expressed fears that could happen any time.

“This is a very helpful and commonsense change in policy,” said MLB executive and lobbyist Lucy Calautti. “For baseball fans, it means knowing that many of their favorite players will be there, each spring, ready to play.”

The new policy memo states that P-1 athletes “are not subject to a lifetime admission of 10 years in the United States.”

Steve Ladik, a Dallas lawyer who serves as outside immigration counsel to the PGA Tour and represents athletes in various sports, called the change “a fair solution which will accomplish the goal of allowing athletes to spend their entire career competing in the U.S.”

In the last session of Congress, MLB pushed legislation by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., that would have scrapped the 10-year limit. The bill made it through the Judiciary Committee but never came up for a vote in the House.

“I am pleased that the Obama administration heard the voices of fans and that this legislation is no longer needed,” she said in a statement Monday.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter to lawmakers last session, Sanchez said it would be hard to imagine U.S. sports without foreign athletes such as Dirk Nowitzki, Johan Santana, Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Guerrero. There were other options for players who had reached the cap, such as applying for a green card or trying for a different type of visa. For example, the AP learned that National Basketball Association star Nowitzki, a Dallas Mavericks forward now in his 11th season, switched to an O-1 visa last year.

The O-1 visa is reserved for athletes and others of “extraordinary ability,” and the German-born Nowitzki is one the league’s top players. But it’s not an option for the average professional athlete.

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