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For foreign yacht crew, the gamble they take with their career every time they enter the United States can be unnerving.
Most, of course, navigate the procedure just fine and never have a problem. But when someone gets tied up in the process, word spreads rapidly and many wonder if it could happen to them next time.
A panel of three officers from the U.S. Coast Guard, five officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and one immigration attorney spent two hours on the final day of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show to offer some advice on how to make sure it doesn’t.
Ft. Lauderdale is the world’s yacht crew employment hub, so “ease of access is critical for our businesses and our crew,” said Graeme Lord, owner of Fairport Yacht Support, a yacht management firm in Ft. Lauderdale, and moderator of the panel.
Confusion sometimes arises around the visa. Seeing the word “crew” might make some officers suggest the C1/D visa is more appropriate, but that visa is designed for crew on commercial vessels such as cruise ships and tankers and only allows admission for something less than 29 days.
Foreign crew coming to join a yacht in the United States should have the B1-B2 visa. Issued together from the crew member’s home country, the B1 portion applies to visitors for business, the B2 to visitors for pleasure. But at the border, they are entered under just one.
“Make sure they come in with B1 status,” said Jody Godmere, watch commander with CBP in Ft. Lauderdale. “Under their B2, they cannot work.”
The key to a smooth entry is to have the proper documentation, including the visa and a letter from the captain of the boat the crew member is joining. That letter should indicate the intent of the visit, which is to join a private yacht for a specific length of time.
“Specifically state the section of law that applies on the letter from the captain,” Godmere said. “People they encounter at the airport may have never worked at a seaport, and they might not understand.”
A thorough letter from the captain can help avoid that. Capt. Bill Hipple of the 130-foot M/Y Lady Kath has a crew letter that works, he said. It includes the crew member’s home address and passport information. It requests entry under the B1 to join a foreign-flagged yacht cruising in U.S. waters, and cites the law. Click for a copy of Capt. Hipple’s letter sample letter.
Assuming the officer at entry acknowledges that the B1-B2 visa is appropriate, sometimes issues arise over answers the crew member gives in the brief interview at the border. Basically, the officer is trying to establish that this foreign national is truly coming in for a visit and intends to return to his home country, called non-immigrant intent. The officer may ask where home is. (Do not say the boat, or a crew house in Ft. Lauderdale.)
“It’s always somewhere outside the U.S., otherwise, you don’t have a non-immigrant intent,” said attorney Scott Hershenson who specializes in immigration issues and is based in Ft. Lauderdale. “Home is always where mom and dad are, not on 17th Street Causeway.”
The officer needs to believe the crew member has an unrelinquished domicile in a foreign country, so have some sort of proof of that connection that would indicate the crew member does not plan to stay in the United States. Ownership of a car or property, or a foreign bank account would apply. Presenting proof of a U.S. bank account would not be good.
Crew without those things — letter and proof of foreign domicile — might be questioned a little harder, might be given a less-than-typical length of entry, or might be denied entry.
If things aren’t going well, don’t get frustrated, several panelists advised.
“Smile,” said Michael Silva, duty officer with CBP’s Miami and Tampa Field Office. “Trying to mitigate the issue at the lowest level is not going to work. Rather than getting into a confrontation with the officer, kindly request to speak to a supervisor. Say ‘thank you. May I speak to your supervisor?’ They have to respond.”
As an applicant for admission to the United States, the crew member does not have rights. They can ask to call their captain, but it’s not a given they will be allowed to do so.
Under the law, entry under the B1-B2 visa can range from 30 days to 365 days, but the computer defaults to six months, so that is the typical entry, panelists said. (A captain’s letter can request more or less, depending on the needs of the vessel. Typically, anything other than six months must be approved by a supervisor.)
If a crew member is stamped in for something less than requested, it can be amended, as long as no time has passed.
“On the date of admission, in the port of admission, it can be changed,” Godmere said. “Don’t leave the area.”
Deb Radtke, owner of American Yacht Agents in Ft. Lauderdale, noted that she has had success with crew coming into Ft. Lauderdale’s airport and stamped in incorrectly by going to the Customs office in Port Everglades, where they understand yacht crew situations.
“In my experience, if you get less time, go straight to Eller Drive,” she said.
In other airports, “If you got less time or were entered in the wrong class, request a deferred inspection to make a correction of your admission,” Hershenson said.
The best way to prevent any issue it to just be nice, everyone agreed.
“The only time we’ve had a problem, the individual didn’t have the proper documentation, and nine times out of 10, they were being nasty,” Fairport’s Lord said. “Present yourself to the person in a decent, respectful manner.”
Lord also asked the panel a series of questions to determine what a captain’s responsibility is when firing and hiring crew as it relates to their visa and U.S. customs.
Basically, there is none. If a crew member is fired from the yacht that they entered the U.S. to work on, they are required by law to leave the U.S. It is unlawful to look for work on the B1-B2 visa that admitted the crew member as a visitor.
“They should leave the country and seek employment from the Internet,” Silva said.
Neither the yacht nor the owner are required to notify CBP.
“However, a captain who does, it would definitely be helpful, particularly if you believe that person is not going to leave,” Godmere said.
Crew in this situation can have their status changed without leaving the country, Hershenson said.
“A change of status is routinely approved,” he said. “Happens all the time.”
If a captain hires a crew member with their B1, does the captain or yacht have any responsibility to make sure they entered correctly?
Again, the officers said, the onus is on the crew member, not the captain or the yacht. If it is discovered that the crew member works on a different yacht than the one he/she gained entry on, “that could be interpreted as a violation,” Godmere said.
Crew members who overstay their visa face several situations, depending on the length of the overstay. Once the visitor overstays a visa, it becomes null and void, Hershenson said. If it’s been less than 180 days, the person must go to their home country and reapply.
If it’s more than 180 days but less than a year, the crew member will be barred from re-entry for three years. If the overstay is longer than a year, the crew member is barred for 10 years.
“Sometimes the stamp in your passport isn’t clear,” he said. “You should always print out your electronic I-94 form to verify the expiration date.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.