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Seafaring Family Runs Afoul of U.S. Immigration Law

Russian couple set sail in 1991, visiting more than 24 countries and having 2 children. But the husband is now jailed in Massachusetts.

October 05, 2003|Jack Hagel | Associated Press Writer

NEWPORT, R.I. — Vitaly Bondarenko remembers the envy he had for sailors who returned to his native Soviet Union with tales of voyages to Italy or Greece.

Sailing was the stuff of daydreams for the 55-year-old former professor -- before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's freedom campaign. "But with Gorbachev, it was possible," he said.

In 1991, Bondarenko planned a round-the-world voyage and told his ocean-fearing wife that she had a choice: Come along or stay behind. They set sail that year, planning to be away for three years. The voyage turned into 12 years of rambling across three oceans and docking in more than two dozen countries.

"You're like a bird," he said. "If you want to fly to another island, you can."

But that freedom ended when Bondarenko was arrested here June 27 by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He didn't have valid documentation, and is being held as an arriving alien in the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, Mass.

Bondarenko, his wife Marina Ordynskaia, 48, and their two boys -- American-born Ivan, 10, and Australian-born Vasily, 5 -- are sparring with a foe more forceful than the storms that have tossed their 28-foot sailboat: immigration law.

Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights at the Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, said their story shows how recreational sailing changed after the 2001 terrorist attacks: "People can't just be floating around the world. We need to know who these people are. I can't expect the authorities to loosen up on that. People who don't have proper identification are going to run into trouble."

Bondarenko and his wife first came to the United States in 1992, docking off North Carolina. They secured employment permits and stayed for several years. After more international sailing, they sailed to Florida in June 2001 and were allowed to stay for one year. Their request to stay longer was denied. When they tried to leave by the June 13, 2002, deadline, Ordynskaia, who was five months pregnant, said she was too sick to travel.

They appealed again, but received only a court summons. The baby, born with Down syndrome about a month before the court date, was put up for adoption. The couple wrote to the court, explaining that they were leaving for the Bahamas. On bad advice from fellow sailors, they left the day before their hearing.

The court ruled them deported in absentia. After traveling to the Bahamas, they sailed to Nova Scotia and planned to cross the Atlantic.

They had stopped in North Carolina in early June to avoid severe weather and were escorted out of the country. When they asked to refuel June 26, Bondarenko's attorney said in a letter to immigration officials, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered them to dock in Newport because there were questions about their boat's seaworthiness. Bondarenko was reluctant and stated the family's immigration problems. But they entered the country anyway and obtained permission to stay a few days to complete documents.

"They said we could get cruising permit and we could stop in U.S. without any immigration problems," Ordynskaia said.

But the next day, federal agents arrested Bondarenko and told him of the deportation order issued because he failed to appear in court in Florida.

Meanwhile, a Florida judge reopened the 2002 case against Bondarenko, whose attorney, former immigration judge William Joyce, called for immigration officials to let his client out of jail. A deportation hearing planned for Sept. 30 in Orlando was moved to Boston, but no court date was set.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said Bondarenko is a flight risk. The other family members -- except the American-born son, who can petition for their citizenship when he turns 21 -- were charged with immigration violations, said Paula Grenier, a bureau spokeswoman. "They have to have something to show the inspectors that they are here for a temporary reason and that they qualify to be here and to be admitted," she said. "They had no entry documents."

Joyce said international laws that say a government must help vessels in distress should trump domestic immigration law.

Coast Guard officials said they had no record of the vessel being "ordered" to port.

"Any time a voyage is terminated, it usually requires an extremely high authority," Coast Guard spokeswoman Chief Phyllis Gamache-Jensen said. "These are the kinds of things we would keep a record on." She said the Coast Guard's rescue manual doesn't consider low fuel to be a matter of distress.

"Just like your car running out of gas is not 'in distress,' " she said. "You don't call the police; you call AAA. A sailing vessel's main means of propulsion is wind. A sailboat being out of gas is not in distress."

While they wait for status on Bondarenko, Ordynskaia watches the children and minds their meager boat, anchored among Newport's opulent yachts.

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