U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are denying entry to some Ukrainian and Russian seafarers at American ports, fearing they might try to overstay their visas or otherwise remain in the U.S. upon reaching American soil.
Though the number of sailors being barred from entry is unknown, a government official confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that the denials were indeed happening. With the global shipping network only recently recovering from COVID-related supply chain issues, the port restrictions on Ukrainians and Russians could disrupt international trade—and punish people the U.S. should be protecting.
Seafarers arriving in the U.S. typically have crew member visas, which "are nonimmigrant visas for persons working on board commercial sea vessels…in the United States, providing services required for normal operation and intending to depart the United States on the same vessel or any other vessel within 29 days." According to The Wall Street Journal, some crew members requested humanitarian protection at U.S. ports due to the war in Ukraine. But port officials may turn seafarers away if they believe they might overstay their visas.
Aside from the question of overstaying visas, U.S. immigration law allows people to seek asylum if they fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Asylum is distinct from refugee status in that applicants must be physically present on American soil or at a port of entry in order to file a claim. It is not yet clear whether port officials worry about seafarers pursuing asylum or whether they are solely trying to prevent them from overstaying visas. Regardless, it is fully legal for Ukrainians and Russians to apply for asylum, and it is concerning that they are being denied the opportunity to do so.
Additionally, it is not yet clear whether entire crews are being barred from disembarking their ships or whether the restrictions only apply to the Ukrainian and Russian sailors aboard ships. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) explained in a press release that "the average ship has a mix of at least three nationalities on board" and sometimes up to 30, meaning this is not as simple as keeping out "Russian ships" or "Ukrainian ships."
Circumstances in Ukraine and Russia certainly call for the U.S. to ensure immigration pathways are open to nationals of each country. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already driven over 3 million Ukrainians to leave home, and though Ukraine's neighbors have proven very receptive to the refugee influx, the Biden administration has been largely silent on America taking in migrants. Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains heavy-handed restrictions on dissent and expression, leaving Russians who protest his war at risk of imprisonment and abuse. Ukrainians and Russians looking to escape hostile circumstances in their home countries should not be barred from entering the U.S.
What's more, the port restrictions serve to destabilize a large portion of the global seafaring industry. Combined, Ukrainian and Russian sailors comprise 14.5 percent of global shipping workers. Nearly 90 percent of global trade is facilitated by shipping, and as the ICS has noted, "seafarers have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, ensuring essential supplies of food, fuel and medicine continue to reach their destinations."
The conflict in Ukraine has thrown the lives of many sailors into disarray, with Ukrainian and Russian seafarers facing issues with compensation due to Ukraine's strained institutions and the sanctions heaped on Russia. Thousands are stuck at sea or in ports because they cannot return home or access pay. By refusing port entry to Ukrainians and Russians, U.S. officials are further adding to these issues by preventing ships from switching out their crews and allowing them proper rest—not to mention the immigration implications.
"We understand there are some field offices that are prohibiting disembarkation of Russian and Ukrainian crew members even though they may have valid U.S. visas," a group of shipping organizations expressed to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a letter obtained by The Wall Street Journal. "This is creating confusion for these individuals and operational challenges for the shipping community."
With Russians and Ukrainians making up such a massive share of the motors behind global trade, it is critical that all components of the machine can function as intended. It is also imperative that U.S. port officials allow Russian and Ukrainian seafarers to pursue legal immigration pathways and seek protection on American soil. Now is the time to welcome vulnerable Russians and Ukrainians, not turn them away.