Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Odia no slam dunk for Xavier


Prized recruit entangled in immigration red tape

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Churchill Odia could sign a national letter of intent today, but it won't end his recruitment, which remains clouded with immigration uncertainty.

Today is the final day of the spring signing period. Xavier already got Odia's signature on non-binding scholarship papers in November, two months after he orally committed to XU. The letter of intent would lock Odia into playing for XU if he signs it, though there has been no definitive indication that he will.

"As far as I know, he plans to," said Odia's high school assistant coach David Adkins, "but honestly, it's in Churchill's hands right now, so I can't say for sure."

A letter of intent is not required step in the recruiting process, and in Odia's case, it is irrelevant at this point.

Bureaucratic work remains to be done to get Odia eligible to attend college in the United States. Applying for a change in his visa is the primary focus of Odia's recruitment, which has coaches and administrators trying to overturn a denial Odia received last spring on his visa application.

A native of Nigeria, Odia has been in the United States for two years at Montrose Christian School in Maryland. His stock rose fast during his junior season when the 6-foot-6 point guard played well during the summer camps and stood out for Montrose.

Odia was living in the U.S. with a visitor's visa at the time - not the required student visa for him to participate in athletics. According to Odia, the Montrose Christian School headmaster said he would have to obtain a student visa in order to play his senior season at Montrose.

The application process for the student visa approached its end one year ago in the spring when Odia's case was up for review and expected to be approved. Unfortunately for Odia, he was out of the country.

On the suggestion of a family adviser, Odia ignored written warnings from immigration officials to remain in the United States and went to Egypt to play for the Nigerian national team in the African Basketball Championships last summer. Because he was overseas when it came time to review his visa case, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office denied Odia's visa application. Reapplying for that student visa has caused the delay that currently has Odia, 18, unsure if he will be able to play in the United States this season. "It's a red flag in that particular instance that he got denied the first time," said Chris Bentley, spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "But it's not something that he couldn't overcome. There would be no prejudice based on the fact that he abandoned his application."

In fact, Bentley suggested that leaving the country to play for a national team would normally be an acceptable scenario, and should not cause setbacks in the application process. Yet Odia's case, which caused him to miss his senior season, is still pending.

"If indeed it was a situation where he was here on a visitor's visa and obviously was not a visitor for pleasure, he may not get that student visa," said Ernestine Fobbs, spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office referring to the general process of changing a visa classification.

Citing federal privacy laws, Montrose coaches declined to talk specifically about Odia's case. Xavier coaches cannot talk about unsigned recruits per NCAA bylaws. Odia did not return messages left on his cell phone Tuesday.

If Odia does not sign the letter of intent today, it is still permissible for other schools to recruit him. Hoop Scoop analyst Clark Francis rates him as the 28th-best senior. "I've had phone calls about him from just about every major program out there wanting to get involved with him," said Montrose Christian coach Stu Vetter, adding he did not know if Odia would sign his letter of intent today.

Odia has been so desperate to find a school that could effectively end his visa dilemma that in mid-April he told the Enquirer that Louisville and Oregon State had joined Xavier as potential college suitors.

He has since visited Louisville, but the scholarship papers that he signed with Xavier tie his visa application solely to Xavier.

Churchill Odia file

Position: Point guard

Height: 6-foot-6

Weight: 190 pounds

Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria

High School: Montrose Christian School, Rockville, Md.

Noteworthy: The Xavier recruit has orally committed to XU but has yet to sign a national letter of intent. He is also waiting for his student visa application to be approved. Hoop Scoop's Clark Francis has rated him the 28th-best senior in the nation.

---

E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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