By Dorie Cox
A yacht stew settled into her seat on a flight back to the United States after a recent overseas holiday. She had been working with the yacht for nearly a year and was rejoining the crew in Fort Lauderdale. As the aircraft readied for take-off, officials suddenly came on board and removed the surprised stew from the flight. They told her that her B1/B2 visa was not valid to re-enter the U.S.
“It was traumatic; she was physically shaken,” said the captain of the yacht. The stew called him with the news after being taken off the aircraft. The captain arranged a flight for her to her home country, and he contacted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The identity of the yacht captain and stew is being withheld because the inquiry is ongoing, but the captain said he is working with DHS’ Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP), a tool for people who have been denied U.S. entry or exit to seek redress. He said the stew had boat documents when she was on the plane, but she did not have the opportunity to show them when officials came on board with an email saying she was denied re-entry.
“They said they found her CV online six months ago,” the captain said. “They talked about her looking for work and daywork. It seems they are accumulating this information and now cross referencing it with airline check-in upon return flights to the U.S.”
Any number of issues, including crew members looking for work while in the United States, can flag a B1/B2 visa for denial or revocation, said Ed Boreth, attorney with The Citizenship Clinic in Fort Lauderdale.
When being inspected by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at an entry point with a B1/B2 visa, which is often used for foreign crew who work on foreign yachts, the officer will look for indications that the crew will be employed by a company in the U.S., Boreth said.
“If the officer thinks you will be working in the U.S. or looking for a job in the U.S., the officer will not let you in, because it would be a violation of the visa,” Boreth said. “What makes them think you will be working in the United States? A U.S. bank account, getting paid in the U.S., a post office box in the U.S. or a resume posted online showing U.S. contact information.”
When admitting a crew member on a B1 or B2 visa, the CBP officers want to see proof that the visit is temporary and the crew member still has a home abroad, he said.
“The first thing they will see is your previous travel history,” Boreth said. “If you have already spent six months or more in the United States this year, it is a good indication to the officer that you were not just a temporary visitor. It is a good idea to have ready to show to the officer: proof that you have a permanent residence back home, like a mortgage statement, bills, etc.; a foreign bank account ideally showing income from a foreign source; or a letter from the yacht captain or owner to let the CBP officer know exactly what you will be doing in the United States.”
In another incident with a B1/B2 visa, finances raised the red flag for customs officers. A foreign crew member’s B1/B2 visa was denied, preventing her from returning to the yacht she had been working on. The officer reviewing her request had found a record showing that she was employed by a Cayman Islands company but had been paid from the company’s American bank account. Rules of the B1/B2 visa state that foreign crew must be employed by a foreign company and paid from a foreign bank account, the captain said.
The crew member was told it is illegal for her to work on the boat in America because she is employed by a management company and the officer could see online that the yacht is used in charter. The customs official said the stew cannot work for a boat based in the U.S.
Government officials can also see certain tax and financial information, the captain said.
“When you start collecting funds in a U.S. entity, you are breaking the law,” he said. “When you open a bank account, it needs to be a transit type.”
The captain said crew should be aware of all of the information they post online.
“They even check Facebook — there are no secrets anymore,” he said.
Incorrect sources and unclear interpretations often have captains and crew talking about the topic of B1/B2 visas.
“Anything concerning U.S. immigration is a hot topic,” said Angela Wilson, crew agent and marketing director of Elite Crew International.
Wilson, as well as most other crew agents, urges crew to seek professional legal advice. But based on her experience, she offers this suggestion: “A resume should be as accurate and honest as possible, and you should know where your resume is going and who has access to it. We all know that it’s illegal for foreigners entering the U.S. on B1/B2 visas to be in the U.S. while looking for work. To avoid being deported, having U.S. visas revoked or being denied entry, crew should adhere to U.S. laws.”
Occasionally, crew members who believe they are following the rules have instead received misinformation.
“Crew get advice from friends, and they don’t think they’re breaking the law,” said Patience Cohn, industry liaison with Marine Industries Association of South Florida.
Fellow crew members may say do this or that, but the information may be incorrect, Cohn said. “These actions could affect crew careers for 10 years.”
Boreth said it is important to remember two things. “First, having the visa stamp in your passport does not give you a right to enter the United States,” he said. “The CBP officer must make the decision to let you in or not, and the officer has the right to refuse entry to a B visa holder. In other words, if the officer thinks you are going to break the rules, you will be denied entry, even if you didn’t actually have any plans to break the rules.”
And second, customs officers are human, Boreth said.
“When you present yourself to the officer, he or she has to decide what they think your plans are for the visit,” he said. “That decision may hinge on many different factors in that particular officer’s life that have nothing to do with the law. If the officer is having a bad day, got yelled at by the boss, has a stomach ache, or you remind him of his mother-in-law, you will probably have a harder time convincing them that you’re not a rule breaker.”
Meanwhile, the stew who was removed from her flight is still hoping that she can return to the yacht. The captain has submitted paperwork for her to rejoin the crew.
“It’s important for government officials to understand no one’s breaking the law on purpose,” the captain said. “I’m waiting — hopefully, I can get her back on board.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.