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A Immigrant From Brazil Has Changed Lives as a Coach. Is That Enough to Stay in the U.S.?

LOS ANGELES — For the past three years, Henrique “Hicu” Motta, a rowing coach, has created unlikely success stories in a sport long associated with the privileged. He has taken his team of high school girls from working-class families to the national championships and sent several of them to Division I colleges on athletic scholarships.

“I’m Latina, little and had never been on a sports team,” said Isabella Soto, 17, the daughter of a nanny and a machinist who hopes to row at an elite college next fall.

Isabella, who was accepted onto the RowLA team despite being only 5 feet 2 inches tall “on a good day,” is a first-generation American whose parents are undocumented Mexicans. Kassie Kim is the child of Korean immigrants, a cashier and a fire-alarm installer. Samadhi Dissanayake, a Sri Lankan-American raised by a single mother in subsidized housing, rides two buses to practice.

“I hated sports before coming here,” said Samadhi, who is also considering rowing in college. “Now I love rowing and the sense of community.”

But Mr. Motta, 39, a Brazilian who is in the country on a work visa, has been notified that his petition to remain in the United States has been denied. In order to stay, U.S. immigration authorities said, he must prove that he has “extraordinary ability” to do a job that might otherwise go to an American.

In a sport dominated by athletes who are white and wealthy, RowLA under Mr. Motta’s leadership has long made a point of enlisting those who normally would not have access to rowing. Neither build nor athletic acumen determine who gets to compete and succeed. “He can take a girl, regardless of size and ability, and turn her into a serious rower. That’s rare among coaches,” said Liz Greenberger, a retired international security analyst who founded the team a decade ago and brought Mr. Motta in as their second coach in 2017. “It’s Hicu’s philosophy that is perfect for our program,” she said.

Mr. Motta’s philosophy is simple: “I try to make something special out of any girl who wants to give rowing a shot,” he said.

The question is, does that amount to extraordinary ability?

In the three years since receiving a work visa, Mr. Motta has crafted a program of dedicated rowers who have competed in the U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals, the highest level for high school rowers, and won college scholarships. But Mr. Motta does not just coach.

A nutritionist by training, he instructs his athletes to maintain a balanced diet. (No processed food before races. Stick to fruit for energy and coconut water for hydration.) Mr. Motta urges his rowers to spend time on their studies and think about futures that can be full of possibilities.

“We don’t just focus on rowing performance; we’re developing student athletes,” said Mr. Motta, standing in Parking Lot 77 at Marina del Rey in West Los Angeles, where the team assembles six days a week to train, rain or shine.

A small rowing program supported by private donations, RowLA cannot be compared to many of the well-endowed, elite teams around the country, some of which have been in existence for a century. The program lacks a boathouse. RowLA’s 17 sculls, rowing machines and other equipment sit in the parking lot, protected by tarps.

“What Hicu does is extraordinary,” said Iva Obradovic, a veteran rowing coach and former competitive rower. “He’s competing against rich, private teams. Hardly any coach would do it. He won’t get praise and glory for it. ”

The makeup of RowLA’s athletes says everything about Mr. Motta’s coaching philosophy, Ms. Obradovic said. “These girls are not typical rowers, but they show up, they have discipline and they do the work.”

When RowLA sponsored Mr. Motta for a temporary work visa in 2017, his 250-page petition documented more than two decades of success as a rower and coach. There were letters from senior Brazilian rowing officials, endorsements from rowing coaches and athletes from several countries and a detailed list of his accolades — more than 20 Brazilian championship titles in several categories.

The visa was approved in a week. “Everybody had said it was so complicated. I was thrilled,” Mr. Motta recalled. The visa enabled his wife, Emanuelle “Manu” Abreu, a competitive rower in Brazil, to join him in the United States, where she has been training and volunteering with RowLA.

Once taking the helm, Mr. Motta began building up RowLA. He established a development program for middle school girls and expanded the reach of the organization’s indoor rowing program, from two to eight schools in the Los Angeles area serving more than 4,000 students each year.

In early 2019, RowLA decided to sponsor Mr. Motta for a green card, or permanent legal residency in the United States.

In the 300-page application, Ms. Greenberger described Mr. Motta as an “invaluable asset” to RowLA. Rob Glidden, president of the Long Beach Rowing Association, credited Mr. Motta’s training methods, nutrition counseling and personal qualities for creating an “outstanding” program to develop rowers.

“The confidence he inspires in these kids is palpable,” Mr. Glidden wrote, saying it had enabled many of them to achieve both academic and athletic success “that would not otherwise have been possible.”

But the government responded with a request for further evidence to prove that Mr. Motta was “extraordinary.” His lawyer, Richard Wilner, submitted an additional 150 pages of documents, only to receive a denial in August.

In a five-page letter, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, which is responsible for approving residence permits, outlined reasons why Mr. Motta did not meet the criteria for someone with “extraordinary ability.”

The agency’s decision referenced a training handbook developed by Mr. Motta for RowLA, which it conceded was “an original contribution,” but it said he had offered no “objective evidence that this innovation is being widely utilized by others in the field beyond his employer, clients or customers.”

Mr. Motta also had not proved that he performed “in a leading or critical role for organizations or establishments that have a distinguished reputation,” the rejection said. What stung the most: It said that the evidence did not show that Mr. Motta had received a “major, internationally recognized prize or award” for his team.

As a competitive athlete and coach, Mr. Motta said, he obviously wants to win. But maybe, he said, victories should not be counted by medals alone.

“At other clubs, it’s all about performance. The objective here is to get the girls on the right path, into college,” he said. “Rowing is a tool.”

Mr. Wilner said the government is using the wrong yardstick. “Perhaps we need to assess his extraordinary ability as a coach with one additional measure of success not contemplated by the regulations,” he said. “It’s that he’s helping these girls win in life, be the first in their family to go to college — not just win medals.”

A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency could not comment on individual cases. “There is an extremely high eligibility threshold that must be met to receive this visa,” he said. Of roughly 1.1 million green cards issued in the 2018 fiscal year, about 39,500 people obtained them under the extraordinary ability category, according to the government, a figure that includes spouses and children of the applicant

Mr. Wilner has appealed the green-card denial, and the legal bills are mounting, totaling more than $15,000 so far. RowLA also applied for an extension on his original guest worker visa, which expired officially on Friday, for another three years.

Rather than grant a renewal, immigration authorities earlier this month requested that Mr. Motta submit further evidence of his “extraordinary ability.” He is permitted to remain in the country and continue coaching until a final decision is made on either application.

So that is what he is doing.

Against the din of squawking sea gulls on a recent Sunday, Mr. Motta stood in a motorboat in the marina and coached the team through their strokes.

“Oars parallel! Attention to the catch,” he called over a walkie-talkie. In perfect synchrony, the girls dipped their blades into the water and propelled their boats forward.

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