Border Controls

Sep 8, 2009

by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.
Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights
The Seamen's Church Institute

Seafaring, by its very nature, involves travel. According to seafarers themselves, traveling from country to country and seeing the world were major factors in their becoming seafarers. In recent years, their opportunities to see the world has been greatly diminished by shorter and shorter vessel port calls. But, judging from some of our recent cases, seafarers are still crossing borders and encountering difficulties with border controls.

For example, we recently learned about a border incident from a seafarer who we had helped recover $20,000 in back wages. When the man returned to his home country with $20,000 in cash, he was concerned about his safety while carrying so much money and hid $10,000 in his belt. United States law required him to report all money over $10,000 that he was taking out of the country. His home country required him to declare how much money he was bringing into his country. The seafarer reported to the United States authorities that he was removing $20,000 from the United States. Upon arriving at his home country, he told the border authorities there that he had only $10,000. After being searched and found to be carrying an extra undeclared $10,000, the authorities confiscated the hidden $10,000.

In another case, a foreign seafarer on shore leave in the United States went to an Immigration Service office to request information on how to change his visa to enable him to extend his stay in the United States. He did not know that a seafarers’ D-1 visa could not be changed while he was in the United States on shore leave. His answers to the immigration officer’s leading questions were interpreted by the officer as an attempt by the seafarer to violate his shore leave status. The officer then revoked the seafarers’ shore leave and banned him from entering the United States for ten years.

In yet another case, a foreign seafarer who was found by an immigration officer to have a small quantity of marijuana when he attempted to enter the United States, was denied entry and banned from ever entering the United States for the rest of his life.

These cases, and other cases like it that involve border controls, such as immigration and customs, are difficult to undo because international law leaves to each country to determine for itself how it will regulate immigration and customs controls. Most countries’ domestic courts strongly support official border controls.

In many countries, individuals’ rights of privacy, protections against self-incrimination and freedoms from unreasonable intrusions by governmental authorities that are enjoyed by citizens and aliens alike while they are inside the country, do not apply at the border. Countries generally place stricter controls at their borders to protect their nation’s health, safety, security and economy from outside threats.

Immigration and customs laws vary widely from country to country. Therefore, when you travel internationally you should:

  • Learn the requirements for leaving and returning to your home country – and follow them.
  • Learn the requirements and formalities for entering and departing the foreign country you intend to visit – and follow them.
  • Do not falsify customs or immigration declarations.
  • Do not travel with illegal drugs – even in small quantities (Be careful that some medications that are sold without controls in some countries might be sold only by prescription in others.)
  • Do not carry packages across borders for any other person unless you have seen what the packages contain.

Information regarding requirements and formalities for border crossings is available from the Center for Seafarers’ Rights.