The immigration restrictions, intensified under Trump, doom a sport with a long tradition in Florida, but which is now in decline.
The American dream has dimmed for “pelotaris,” players of the Spanish game of “pelota” or jai alai. U.S. immigration restrictions, which have become increasingly strict during recent years — especially since Donald Trump became president — have affected countless people across the world, among them the peculiar group of pelota aces from the Basque Country in Spain.
On the other end of the phone, from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I can hear players from Markina, a village of 5,000 inhabitants in the Spanish Basque Country, screaming and throwing the ball against the wall. Jon Mandiola, 20, stops playing to pick up the phone. "From an early age I have wanted to go play in Florida, and it's a huge disappointment not to be able to," explains the young pelotari, who has asked for a visa three times in the last year and been denied on each occasion.
Cesta Punta, as it is also known, is a Basque sport established in Florida almost a century ago. It was a very popular sport for betting until the 80s, when a major union conflict, as well as diversification in the world of sports betting, doomed the sport to oblivion and pushed it into the terminal condition it is in right now. In Florida, there is currently only one fronton court —the type of court where pelota is played — open all year round at Dania Beach Casino, and another one that is falling out of use at Casino Miami. The situation is made worse by the fact that it is becoming increasingly hard to bring players from the Basque Country, who are the ones capable of providing a world-class show. Another casino, Magic City, is trying to bring the sport back, but due to difficulties in obtaining visas for foreign players, it is forced to train former American football and baseball players, who barely know anything about Cesta Punta or its history.
Dania’s fronton court has applied for the most visas since 2016 and is having continual problems. Four of its requests have been denied, despite it having repeated the procedure up to three times, and the seven requests approved have been delayed up to eight months, compared to the month it took years ago. In fact, it's now been a year since immigration stopped granting them altogether.
"Three years ago they began to ask for more information, documents, pelotari certifications, and more, and questioning the need for bringing Basque players instead of turning to American ones. And so the casino has decided that it's more practical to hire American players or players residing in the U.S.," explains Íñigo Arrieta, 37, an active cestolari and vice chairman of the local jai-lai players union, which still counts about 70 members. They are requesting the Internationally Renowned Athletes visa, and Arrieta regrets the U.S. doesn’t understand that "the only world-class pelotaris are the Basque ones."
In the 80s, there were up to 15 fronton courts open in the U.S., most of them in Florida, and up to 500 players coming from the Basque Country, compared to the 50 there are at the moment. "Now you almost have to be the best pelota player in the world to be granted a visa," Jairo Baroja, 35 and a player at Dania Casino, complains. "It's not the same thing having some random person play as bringing in top-level players like us, who have been exposed to the sport since we were kids."
Arrieta makes clear that the immigration hurdles began at the beginning of 2016, before Trump won the November election. He notes, though, that with Trump in the presidency and his restricted immigration policy, "he's giving another turn to the screw."
Jon Mandiola comes from a family of pelotaris, something common in the world of Cesta Punta; his grandfather, his father and his uncles had the chance to play in Florida, which is the place where players could make the most money. From an early age, in his native Markina, he would constantly hear how the Basque pelotaris were famous and locally acclaimed on the sunny, luxurious American peninsula.
"I thought I'd have my chance too, but that hasn't happened yet," he says with annoyance. "They say it is now harder to enter the country because of the bad things and attacks occurring everywhere. I don't know if it's politics or fear ... I haven't lost hope, though, that someday I'll have my opportunity and will be able to go. Well, only if the fronton courts are still open, that is."