A Run In with US Immigration
I should have read the signs. I didn’t spot them.
Mistake number 1.
On arriving in the American islands of Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands you are not allowed to dispose of any rubbish. It must be kept on board (even if it’s a plastic bottle or an empty tin can) and someone has to come out and collect it for a fee. This is for the protection of ???? species of plants and animals against disease. We paid a visit to the marina office so that we could check in and use their phone to call the number we had been given by the coastguard. I decided to throw away the rubbish on route.
The people at the other end of the line didn’t really understand why we were calling but in the end they told us that we were to bring the boat alongside to the fuel dock and await an immigration officer. We were not allowed to leave the boat. Shortly an officer arrived and she asked to come aboard and inspect the boat. She asked about our rubbish (luckily we still had some on board), but we also thought it best not to lie so I did admit that I had taken some off. She said this was illegal and normally resulted in a $500 fine, but she could see that it had been a genuine mistake so she wrote us a warning and waivered the fine.
We were all so exhausted having not had a proper sleep in about 4 days that we took the mattresses out on to the deck and promptly feel asleep. We must have looked a very untidy mess. We were woken by the sound of large engines as an amazing speed boat entered the harbour and two police officers greeted us. With that the immigration officers arrived and I think the police were there to check that we didn’t cause any trouble.
The immigration officer was a very stern chap, serious and a little bit scary. He took our passports and boat documents, looked them over, and then looked at us gravely as he said we were in trouble. We did not have the correct visas. We were in the country illegally which would result in a $1000 fine and deportation.
Mistake number 2.
We were confused. We had spoken to US border patrol in both Texas and Florida and we had asked if there was anything special that we needed to do for either the boat or ourselves. They both stated no. To enter the US on a private vessel then you must have a visa, the waiver program (the ESTA) is not valid. At no point were we told this even though we had asked. We begged him to believe us. We showed him the paperwork to prove that we had been dealing with Texas and Florida, we told him to call them, we had their names. He thought things over, he checked things over, he got on the phone and then told us that we were lucky. His boss had waivered the fine, but we would have to come to immigration and file the paperwork. We thanked him profusely.
As Puerto Rico comes under the jurisdiction of the US the visa that Emma had come into Texas on was still valid (they were treating it as if she had never left US soil) so she had 3 days left. Myself and Ben had completely run out, so Emma was ok but had 3 days to get out the country and myself and Ben were given Humanitarian Visas, a once in a lifetime visa, if this ever happened again we would be black listed from America. It was valid for 6 months but as we had to get Emma out of the country within 3 days this was of no consequence. So it was a simple solution, shame it took 8 hours to do the paperwork, retina scans, finger printing etc etc. Emma was in tears (and she wasn’t even illegal). Whilst I was in the office the immigration guy must have been bored as he started quizzing me, asking me questions such as what was my occupation in 2005. Luckily I was truthful as he had all the answers in front of him.
If you ever go to America and fill out the immigration landing form, remember not to lie. They put all that information in a computer to pull up at any time in the future.
So after an exhausting trip followed by an exhausting day in immigration it was time to do the usual shopping and re-stocking before heading off the next day with a deadline to meet. Emma had to get out of America.