- - Monday, May 30, 2016

For nearly a century, the Jones Act has been a reliable safeguard against American and global corporatists wanting to make higher profits at the expense of U.S. national security and jobs. Thanks to the Jones Act, shipping vessels that operate in U.S. waters must be American crewed, American owned and American built. All of this makes perfect sense, except to Wall Street and businesses that only account for their own self-interests — and they’re trying to fool everyone into thinking the Jones Act is antiquated and onerous.

Some in Congress are following their lead, citing the same worn-out and less than compelling argument that the Jones Act is a relic of the past. How wrong they are. Their latest endeavor involves infringing on the Jones Act through legislation addressing the Puerto Rico debt crisis, even though Puerto Rico has benefited from Jones Act protections over time.

With or without such an effort, it’s imperative not to conflate the unrelated issues of Puerto Rico’s debt and the Jones Act, and to fully grasp the importance of ensuring the safe transport of goods between American ports. There must also be acknowledgment of the dire consequences of exposing ports and waterways to foreign seafarers.

Today, especially with terrorism and illegal immigration matters of concern to so many Americans, the security that the domestic maritime industry provides to the United States and its territories is essential. While the current border security discussions have centered on the complexity of securing our land borders, just imagine the difficulty of the Coast Guard trying to manage inland waterways, lakes and coastlines filled with foreign seafarers. Moreover, diverting already strained Coast Guard resources to monitor and manage foreign seafarers in domestic trade would undermine other vital Coast Guard missions.

A study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently found there are approximately 5 million maritime crew entries into the United States each year, and “the overwhelming majority of seafarers entering U.S. ports are aliens.” Citing the potential for terrorism, the GAO said “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) considers the illegal entry of an alien through a U.S. seaport by exploitation of maritime industry practices to be a key concern.” The State Department similarly calls the issue of foreign seamen security a “national security concern.”

The security response to this risk involves procedures overseen by a battery of federal agencies like the Coast Guard, the State Department, and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Despite massive federal efforts, the GAO noted, the percentage of absconders (foreign crew members who depart the vessel despite being told by CBP to remain) and deserters (foreign crew members who lawfully leave the vessel but don’t return) continues to grow.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft agreed, addressing the dangers of having foreign vessels in U.S. waters: “If we have foreign-flag vessels doing coastalized trade, what are the safety standards, what is the maritime pollution standards, how are they in compliance with the same standards that we apply to our U.S. fleet?”

Unlike foreign seafarers, who generally enter the United States through carefully defined ports of entry, American seafarers can move freely throughout our nation — navigating the waterways of over the vast majority of our states and all coastlines. They deliver cargo and people throughout our communities, near our schools, past sports arenas, and under major highways. By one estimate, there are more miles of inland waterways in our nation than our land borders with Mexico and Canada combined. It would be impossible to monitor thousands of foreign vessels with foreign crews in our waters. Fortunately, we don’t have to because of the Jones Act.

Contrast this with foreign crews for which, as the GAO stated, “the U.S. government has no control over foreign seafarer credentialing practices,” all Jones Act mariners are subject to intensive background checks, credentialing, and training.

As Congress works to address the Puerto Rican debt situation or any other policy matter, our guiding principle should always be to first do no harm, particularly when homeland and national security are involved. The brave men and women who operate every day in our domestic waters and between U.S. ports are the eyes and ears of our nation at a time when threats to the homeland remain consistent and strong.

A former Marine, Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, is chairman of the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee.

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