By Seth Kugel
Dear Tripped Up,
On Aug. 6, my wife, my two children and I arrived at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal to board the MSC Meraviglia for a weeklong cruise that included a stop in the Bahamas. I am a scientist in the United States on a work visa and awaiting my green card, so I followed my lawyer’s instructions and presented my Chinese passport and my “combo card” — an American document that grants immigrants in my situation permission both to work in the United States and to travel abroad. But MSC Cruises refused to let me board, saying the card did not guarantee I would be readmitted to the country when the boat returned to Brooklyn. I soon met two other would-be travelers in the same, er, boat: Fadia, a 79-year-old Egyptian grandmother set to board with 19 relatives and friends, and Nargis, a Bangladeshi woman ready to cruise with her husband. After hours of pleading our case, even getting Fadia’s immigration lawyer to speak to staff by phone, we were all sent home. MSC refunded me about $500 in fees and taxes, but I’m still owed about $2,300 for the cruise fare for my family of four. Nargis and her husband have also not been reimbursed, nor have Fadia and her son (who stayed behind with her while the rest of the group sailed). Can you help? — Heng, New Haven, Connecticut
I don’t need to tell you how complex immigration law is, but let’s get everyone else up to speed on how it affects cruise travel. Before ships allow you to board, they must verify that all passengers have sufficient documentation to reenter the country at the end of the cruise. If the cruise company screws up, they face steep penalties from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. (The same rules hold for airlines.)
That’s why they often err on the side of caution, with the stress in this case on “err.”
MSC Cruises said it will refund all three families and provide each a credit toward a future cruise. In a statement, Field Sutton, the director of communications for the American division of MSC Cruises, wrote:
“Several guests who were booked to sail on MSC Meraviglia’s Aug. 6 departure from New York City were unable to board the ship due to a misunderstanding over the documents they provided for international travel. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.”
It appears that in all three cases, the terminal staff was flummoxed by that “combo card,” a document the size of a driver’s license that the United States provided you and some other immigrants in anticipation of green cards, for which the application process can take years.
As you know, and its nickname implies, the combo card serves two roles. It is an “employment authorization” document and also (here’s the somewhat confusing part) has the words “Serves as I-512 Advance Parole” printed at the bottom.
And now, a brief digression on “advance parole,” a term that indicates an immigrant can leave the United States and return lawfully, as long as they meet all other requirements.
“Presenting a valid combo card will authorize a transportation carrier to accept you on board for travel to the United States,” reads the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
But it doesn’t ensure entry, or reentry.
According to the CBP website, “Advance Parole does not guarantee admission into the United States. Aliens with Advance Parole are still subject to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection process at the port of entry.” At the port of entry, officials can “parole” — temporarily admit — the traveler, or reject them.
But it is not as bad as it seems, since similar conditions apply to many categories of traveler, including foreign tourists.
“Even a green card holder is not guaranteed reentry into the United States,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell Law School. “If there’s nothing in the person’s immigration history to indicate that they are inadmissible for other reasons, then they should be allowed on the cruise ship.”
The supervisor at the terminal you interacted with — as you, the other families and Fadia’s immigration lawyer told me over video calls — was not employed by MSC, but by a company called SMS International Shore Operations. SMS provides services for many big cruise lines, including, in this case, vetting of passenger documents.
Christopher Blanchard, executive vice president of SMS, told me that when faced with complex or unfamiliar documentation, SMS staff can, through the cruise line, consult CBP officials to clarify rules. MSC declined to comment on this aspect of the experience.
Blanchard added that SMS is “simply the conduit the cruise lines use to interact with the guest, and we act on their instructions.” According to several cruise industry officials I spoke to, it is common for the cruise lines to defer to the CBP, and on Aug. 6, the SMS staff told you that they were following directions from CBP officials working at the terminal.
Rhonda Lawson, a CBP spokesperson, would not respond to my more detailed questions, writing in an email that the agency “cannot comment on a specific carrier’s decision to deny boarding to an individual.”
Fadia’s immigration lawyer, Seham Elmalak, told me the SMS supervisor she spoke with that day would not connect her with the CBP official involved. Elmalak also said she never spoke to anyone from MSC, which is ultimately responsible.
All these (probably heated) in-person discussions aside, guidance could be found online, in the “Carrier Information Guide” published by CBP and last updated in 2019. This 84-page government document goes over in excruciating detail who should be allowed to board a plane or ship headed to the United States and who shouldn’t.
Let’s turn to Page 36, which is exclusively dedicated to the combo card and which says that as long as the combo card is unexpired and notes on the front that it is also valid for advance parole, “carriers may board these passengers presenting this document.”
Even with such clear documentation, I don’t believe I can confidently advise immigrants in situations like yours to book international cruises — regardless of the cruise line.
I wrote to six other major lines — Norwegian, Disney, Cunard, Viking, Carnival and Princess — to confirm they welcomed passengers with advance parole status. Norwegian, Disney, Cunard and Viking did not respond to three requests for comment. Carnival responded with an online link to its policy, but when I pointed out that there was no mention of advance parole, it also went silent. Princess did respond, but said it would need to know more specific details and that CPB officials “ultimately have the final judgment in these matters.”
Only MSC staked out a position, with Sutton telling me that “generally speaking, MSC allows those with advance-parole documents to sail” as long as all other documentation is in order.
So, Heng, that’s their policy. But as you experienced, whether they follow the policy can only be determined, ultimately, at the cruise terminal.