Belbin lands citizenship shot

Skater likely to represent U.S. in Games



Washington -- Ice dancer Tanith Belbin, who has a shot for a medal in the coming Winter Games, got her holiday wishes and then some granted when Congress approved an amendment just in time to allow her to gain citizenship and represent the United States with partner Ben Agosto.

Belbin and Agosto are considered medal contenders based partly on their silver in the world championships in Moscow earlier this year. It was the first medal in that event for the United States in 20 years at the worlds, and the highest finish for an American ice dancing team in 30 years.

But they nearly missed their chance to skate next month at the Games in Turin, Italy.

The Canadian-born Belbin, 21, currently living in Michigan, would not have had U.S. citizenship in time for the Olympics without an amendment attached to a spending bill by Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

The bill was approved by the Senate on Wednesday as Congress prepared to break for the holidays. Since it has passed the House, the only remaining hurdle is for President Bush to sign it. "We have no reason to believe it would not be signed," Belbin's Washington-based attorney, Barney Skladany, said yesterday.

"I talked to Tanith and she is obviously quite thrilled, and I'm thrilled for her," Skladany said. "Tanith has been saying quite properly, `I'll believe it when I have the citizenship paper in my hand.' Now she has the statute. I'm sure the Olympics was her dream from the morning she first tied up her skates."

Skladany said Agosto sat out the last Olympics because he didn't want to skate with anyone else. The attorney said that Belbin would have been expected to wait until 2007 for citizenship without the congressional action.

"It's just the best Christmas gift I could ever ask for," Belbin said from Ontario, where she was visiting family members, according to the Associated Press.

Levin introduced the amendment to correct what he called "an anomaly in the law."

He said Belbin began her naturalization process in 2000, too early to take advantage of 2002 rules changes that streamlined procedures for aliens deemed to have "extraordinary ability." That's a special classification for athletes, musicians, artists and others.

Under the 2002 changes, applicants can receive their green cards in a matter of months and have the citizenship process over in less than 5 1/2 years. At the time Belbin applied, the process could stretch to seven or eight years.

Levin said Belbin and others should not be penalized because they happened to seek citizenship at a time when their cases moved more slowly than those applying today. As a remedy, the senator introduced his measure shortening the wait period between receiving a green card and being eligible for naturalization.

The legislation applies only to "extraordinary ability" applicants such as Belbin who began the process before July 2002 and will be representing the country on "an international stage," Skladany said. He's not sure who besides Belbin fits that description. "It probably is not a lot of people," the lawyer said.

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