A Port of No Call
"Very nice, this city," says Capt. Marin Ivanovic, surveying the skyline as the freighter he skippers bobs beside the grain terminal at Seattle's Pier 86. "But we can't go there. We suffer too much at sea, and now we suffer at the dock. We want to get off the ship. Instead, we sit here."
Ivanovic speaks for thousands of other foreign seamen who haul America's freight and now find themselves monkeys in the middle of its war on terrorism. Many have been sailing to the States for years or decades, and as long as their records were clean, they had enjoyed relatively easy access to shore, whether to have a beer, see a doctor, go to church, buy presents for the kids, or -- first priority for most of them -- buy a phone card and call home. Now they're caught in a web of tightening security rules and narrowing visa options that may keep America safe from drunken sailors but won't likely keep any terrorists out.
Getting ashore can be a matter of health and safety, not just morale and cabin fever. The issue came to light earlier this month when Lila Smith -- who, as Seattle representative of the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation, monitors conditions for seamen docking here -- visited Capt. Ivanovic's ship, the Greek-owned, Cyprus-registered bulk carrier Miltiadis, which had just made a run from Mexico to Japan and arrived here to pick up a load of China-bound wheat. Smith asked the usual question: Anything I can do to help the crew? Yes, came the answer: Can you get medical attention for these two men? One, the chief engineer, had lost some fillings and had exposed broken teeth. The other, engine oiler Kenneth Serrano, had a painfully swollen jaw, apparently from an abscessed tooth -- an infection that can cause severe complications.
But getting help isn't as easy as it used to be. U.S. immigration rules offer seamen three ways to get ashore; all have gotten more costly or difficult since 9/11, and at least one will soon vanish. The high road is to obtain an individual visa at a U.S. embassy before sailing, just as a tourist or business traveler does. But the price -- $65 following an increase last year -- puts such visas out of reach for many seamen, who work for as little as $300 a month. And the logistics are often impossible, anyway; a tramp steamer like the Miltiadis -- the maritime equivalent of a cruising taxi -- may not get its next assignment until it's at sea. Turnaround time for visas, which varies widely among embassies, has gotten longer as consular officials check security agencies' databases (as ordained by the Patriot Act) and delve more deeply into applicants' records. "In Japan, you need at least six weeks in advance," says Capt. Ivanovic; Blace Nemeth, a ship's agent with Portland's Bluewater Marine, the Miltiadis' on-shore agent, says he's seen a letter from the Tokyo embassy warning visa applicants to wait four to six weeks.
Even if they have time, "third-party nationals" -- say, Filipinos or Yugoslavs trying to get a U.S. visa in Japan -- have an uphill fight. The State Department "encourages" them to apply in their home countries, where, in the words of spokesperson Kelly Shannon, "they are better able to prove ties to home" and prove they're not trying to emigrate. The word from Japan, says Smith, is that the embassy there is only issuing visas to Japanese nationals.
Seafarers have traditionally had another, easier recourse; shipping companies could obtain blanket "crew-list visas" by providing documents on all crew members. These were quick and cheap (about $45 for an entire crew) and especially handy for sailors who came repeatedly to U.S. ports over many years and established good track records. But several years ago, the United States began charging for each crew member. Last year, it raised that charge to $100; a visa for the Miltiadis' 21 crewmen would cost $2,100. Shipping companies, famously tight-fisted, are reluctant to pay such sums; the Miltiadis' operator had not.
Soon the shippers won't have to decide whether to pay. Although it doesn't appear that terrorists or other bad guys have used crew-list visas to get into the country, the State Department last month announced it intended to abolish such visas in the interest of national security. "The idea," say Remy Valenzuela, seaport operations director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, "is to look at every visa individually, rather than a group." The upshot: Even fewer seafarers will have visas to get off their ships.
Even without visas, however, they could often get ashore legally in the past. Ship's captains could request waivers from the INS if they could show good reason for not having the visas. INS inspectors, who board each ship as soon as it arrives and examine everyone aboard, exercised considerable discretion -- and, contrary to the agency's hard-ass image, often showed considerable sympathy for sailors who needed to see a doctor, call home, or even just buy presents for the family. Some have taken the view that the ship's boundaries extend to the phone booth on the dock, so seamen stuck on ship could call home. As Valenzuela says, "You use common sense."
Maybe, but inspectors now have less discretion to exercise that sense. Only one INS assistant district director can now issue waivers. "It's all on the level now," says Valenzuela. "Certain criteria must be met." Out with common sense, in with rules. Still, Valenzuela declares, "If it's a medical situation, paroles will be granted." On the ships and docks, however, the word is that they'll be granted only in life-threatening emergencies.
Capt. Ivanovic desisted from trying to get his sore-jawed sailors to a dentist. ("It would be difficult," he explains.) Instead, he dispensed antibiotics from the ship's stores, which reduced crewman Serrano's swelling and pain. "We don't make any trouble," says Ivanovic with a shrug, putting the best face on the situation. "We don't complain. These are the rules. What can we do?"
And then they start complaining. Serrano waves wistfully toward the Seattle skyline: "Now this is all we get. This is our happiness." Before, says Ivanovic, Saudi Arabia was the only country where he couldn't disembark. "Even in Russia when it was Cold War, you could go on shore." But the current lukewarm war is a different story. "Don't blame us" for the terror, he says plaintively. "We didn't cause these problems."
Don't blame immigration inspectors, either, argues transport workers rep Smith: "INS is stuck between a rock and a hard place" -- and would get pilloried if the next Mohammed Atta snuck in on a seaman's visa. She lays some blame on shipping companies that, she claims, are glad to exploit the situation and let their crews molder on board; they must cover medical treatment, but if seamen can't get ashore to get treatment . . .
Onshore helpers try to mitigate the isolation. The Catholic Seafarers' Club takes phones aboard, so detained crew members can call home, and dispatches priests and ministers to conduct services. But conditions are getting tougher, "not just in Seattle but all along the coast," says Seafarers' Club worker Carol Waud.
"It's not a good time to be a seaman coming to the United States," laments ship's agent Nemeth. "These guys are just working shmucks. One of the reasons to sail is to see the world, and they're fascinated with the United States. Unfortunately, a lot of them don't get to see beyond the rail of the ship. It's demoralizing."
But international goodwill isn't high on the federal priorities list right now. Keeping terrorists out is, and the stepped-up vigilance and souped-up databases that INS inspectors now bring to their initial examinations should help. But it's hard to see the payoff from detaining whole crews. Valenzuela concedes that it would be impossible to station guards at every dock and gangplank and stop someone determined to sneak ashore. You need a pass code to get into the Seattle grain terminal's electronic gate, but a ship-jumper would merely push a button to exit.
"It's like keeping a thief out of your home," says the Rev. Everett Savage, a Lutheran pastor who conducts ship visits with the Seafarers' Club. "If someone wants to jump ship, there's no need for a shore pass."
Eric Scigliano is a staff writer for Seattle Weekly.