By Dorie Cox
Yachts and their crew spend tens of millions of dollars on refits, maintenance and repairs, as well as provisions, accommodations and services in the United States. And those dollars are finally getting federal officials to listen when government procedures hinder a yacht’s ability to enter the United States.
When yacht crew are denied B-1/B-2 visas or denied entry at the border, industry professionals – from managers and agents to the crew themselves – get frustrated, said Debora Radtke, owner of American Yacht Agents in Fort Lauderdale.
“If we can’t get the crew to come, we can’t get the yachts,” she said.
Foreign yacht crew don’t fit into a category like other visiting workers, Radtke said as speaker on a panel that included officials from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs and U.S. Customs and Border Protection during a workshop at the American Boating Congress (ABC) in Washington, D.C., in May.
A few recent examples that have confused consular officers who issue visas include a crew member who worked with a yacht owner for years but faced an expiring visa, and an entry-level crew member who was hired in the Mediterranean, then traveled with the yacht to the United States. These scenarios are common in yachting, but confusing for a crew member to explain during a visa interview.
“Crew are doing everything they are requested to do and may still be denied [a visa],” Radtke said. “There is a disconnect between the bodies issuing the visas and the enforcement. One of the problems is, we get different answers from different embassies.”
That’s one of the issues the ABC panel aimed to discuss. Another is the impact on the U.S. economy when crew are denied a visa. For example, two yachts that usually visit the United States for annual maintenance recently stayed in the Bahamas for the work after a few crew members were denied visas. Despite other crew obtaining visas, the few were denied because the “employer” wasn’t the same as the “owner.”
“The yacht-owning company was different from the employing company, it didn’t match, so a crew visa was denied,” Radtke explained. “On paper, the yachts are owned by a variety of owners, like LLCs, but it can be complex.”
Most crew aren’t privy to all the details of how the yacht ownership is structured – nor should they be – but it can hinder their entry. Explaining those complexities to government is the first step to lowering the hurdle.
The things yacht crew can control include conducting a successful interview. For a yacht crew to be a good candidate, they must understand a few key points, said Patience Cohn, industry liaison for Marine Industries Association of South Florida (MIASF).
The No. 1 job for every visa officer is to determine that visa applicants are not immigrating to the United States. Their job is to protect the U.S. border while facilitating legitimate travel to the United States, and a visa is a request for permission to enter the country. The burden is on the crew member to prove he or she will not immigrate to the U.S.
This makes the interview for the visa an important part of the equation, Cohn said.
“The answer to the question, ‘Where do you live?’ is not, ‘on the boat,’” she said. “You have to have a residence where you live in your home country. Where you get mail is not LMC [Lauderdale Marine Center]. You can say your mail is forwarded to your yacht management company. And you cannot have a U.S. checking account.”
While most crew obtain the B-1/B-2 visa to work on board yachts in the United States, several yacht industry associations recommend crew apply for both B-1/B-2 and C-1/D visas. The combination B-1/B-2 visitor visa is for crew who want to enter the United States temporarily for business (B-1) and/or tourism, pleasure or visiting (B-2) for 30 days or longer, usually up to 180 days. The C-1/D visa is a combination of the D (for crew working on sea vessels or airlines that intend to depart within 29 days) and the C-1, which is the transit portion of the visa.
It is against the law to enter the United States on a visitor’s visa (B-2) and then look for work. It is also illegal to enter on a business visa (B-1) and change jobs. But yacht crew have been doing just that for years, with few repercussions.
“Now, we all pay the price for the people that did,” Cohn said. “It happened before the internet, but the world has changed. The internet is not your friend. That’s how crew often get caught. It specifically says you cannot use this visa to come here and look for employment.”
Once a crew member is given a visa, he or she brings it to a U.S. port or airport to seek permission to enter the country from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer. There can be some misunderstandings at this level also, said CBP’s Steve Ehrlich, branch chief for Traveler Policies Division Admissibility and Passenger Programs.
With such a large government department, there are often new officers who are unfamiliar with yachting, Ehrlich said. He works to educate them and explain how yacht crew are entering to work as skilled employees.
There will continue to be new issues due to variables with crew from different countries, yachts with different flags, and consulates in a variety of regions, yacht agent Radtke said. But these issues are being talked about, and with each meeting with government officials, progress is made, Cohn said.
Although there is no specific legislation scheduled for visa changes, maritime groups, including the MIASF, know that regular advocacy works.
“As far as visas, I think we made a big stride,” Cohn said. “I’m encouraged that the workshop panel was willing to be there and to have open dialogue, which was an advantage. Personal relationships are critical. You can solve anything if you sit and talk with people.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.
For U.S. travel visa information, visit the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs.