By Dorie Cox
No matter how often immigration, cruising permit and charter rules are discussed, questions persist. Answers are based on laws and regulations, but often there is room for interpretation, said government officials from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).
On the third floor of M/V Grand Floridian, near the center of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, more than 80 people in the yacht industry paid close attention. The Marine Industries Association of South Florida organized the speaker panel and lunch Saturday to address industry concerns.
One message from the officials was: “There are regulations we have to follow, but we can work it out.”
In regard to cruising permits, nothing has changed, said John Ortiz, CBP Port Everglades trade operations supervisor. Yachts listed for sale are generally not allowed to obtain a cruising permit. If the owner wants to use it for a short event, he said, officials will try to work with captains.
To determine which yachts are charter and therefore not eligible for a cruising permit, CBP officers check the internet.
“We use open sources to check if a yacht is for charter anywhere in the world,” Ortiz said.
In response to a collective groan from the crowd, Anthony J. Fortunato, chief CBP officer, said, “If the captain says it’s an old listing, the captain can provide a statement, a signed affidavit.”
“We can make a decision on a case-by-case situation,” Ortiz added. Crew can present a document showing that it was commercial and is now pleasure. But what if a vessel gets identified as charter?
“We look at each case, because the regulations say ‘if it charters anywhere in the world,’ ” Ortiz said. “But if we see the owner and a clear itinerary, we are issuing permits.”
Ortiz said the industry has abused permits and brought yachts in to sell, and that has caused increased scrutiny.
An attendee asked for clarification that if a yacht is a bareboat charter, it can still be issued a cruising permit.
“A bareboat is considered recreational and is not commercial trade,” Fortunato said.
They can be penalized under other laws, said Phil Purcell, executive director of MIASF. Purcell suggested the officials not deny permits for that reason.
“I am mandated to enforce the laws, but captains can write that it was available for charter but we will not in the U.S.,” Fortunato said.
Another attendee asked how crew can best give evidence that they are not living in the United States. Fortunato said the officers look for bank statements, utility bills, and paperwork to connect the applicant to a home country. That sort of documentation proves the applicant doesn’t intend to stay in the U.S.
It makes their job difficult if crew can’t provide those documents, Fortunato said.
The attendee said that is a challenge for many crew who are young and without assets.
If they have a bank account and the majority of the money is sent to their home country, if it seems to make sense, that may satisfy government officials, Fortunato said.
“But it is only a small piece to the puzzle,” he said.
A yacht captain shared an example of six of his crew denied visas after a consular officer did a Google search that showed the yacht had chartered.
“Even with the correct paperwork,” the captain said. The yacht’s rotation captain was among the group denied.
“We comply with regulations and we follow rules, but this has become Russian roulette,” the captain said. “We have to tell the owners we can’t offer assurances?”
The crowd applauded the captain’s comments and question.
Fortunato said the issuance of visas is a U.S. Department of State function that could not be addressed by either CBP or USCG. However, the issuance of entries in South Florida is three times more than the rest of the country and the refusal rate is in line with the norm, he said.
A yacht stew raised concerns over officials using the internet to find charter status. She said that it is possible to find a yacht for charter online, but if the officials clicked through to the source, they would find the actual charter is a “similar yacht” and not the named yacht after all.
“If that happens, come tell us,” Fortunato said.
The stew suggested the government groups work with the Charter Yacht Brokers Association or a broker group to find current yachts listed for charter instead of trusting the internet.
In reference to conversations among yacht crew about B1/B2 visa denials, MIASF industry liaison Patience Cohn recommended yacht crew request both C1/D and B1/B2 when applying for a visa to come to the U.S. on a yacht.
“That’s how the aviation industry has done it for years,” she said.
If both are issued, the admitting officer will decide which to grant admission under, depending on the intent of the visit, Fortunato said, noting that the C1/D is for commercial vessels. Crew on private yachts would be admitted under the B1/B2, he said. If a crew member has both, he or she “should be covered,” he said.
At one point, after a captain expressed his frustration at having done what he thought was the right thing only to be denied, the panel empathized but reiterated that each entry is determined on a case-by-case basis. They want to grant visas and admit visitors to the U.S., they said, but they need to follow the law. Paperwork and documentation that proves the crew will not overstay their allotted time and that the boat will not violate the terms of its cruising permit will make the process smoother.
Dorie Cox is editor of Triton Today. Comments are welcome below.