We ain't no Class A!
I must have been to the US perhaps a hundred times, but the last Saturday I had the strangest entry experience so far. I am presently working in the US in a TN-1 (NAFTA professional) status, and as my current admission period is coming to a close, I decided to combine a vacation with a "border run", to obtain a new permit upon re-entry. People usually do at at border crossings or airports, but this time I was to go overseas (well, to Mexico) by boat! Carnival runs weekly cruises ships out of New Orleans to Mexican ports, the weather is nice, and, hey, we have long wanted to see some Mayan ruins.
The trip was much as expected (I will write about the Dzibilchaltún visit some time later), but re-entry was a surprise. The US Code of Federal Regulation states (CFR 214.6 (d) (2)) that eligible individuals can apply for the TN-1 status at any Class A point of entry, and CBP lists the Port of New Orleans (and in fact, quite a few smaller sea ports in Louisiana) as a Class A port of entry. (They definition they give is that a Class A facility can process all kinds of aliens, while a Class B one is only set up to deal with permanent residents, and Class C, with foreign sailors. Of course US citizens can enter their country through a port of any class).
This being said (and written), I naturally expected the entry facility (Erato Street Cruise Terminal, to be precise) to look much like a similar facility at any international airport - a row of immigration check points, with a "secondary inspection" area in the back for the cases that need more paperwork, the baggage claim area, and then the customs check. Or it could be like one of the smaller land border crossings, with inspectors combining both roles, but, presumably, still with their bookcases of immigration manuals, drawers full of ink stamps and tables with printers. Well... when our beautiful Panamanian ship (without a single Panamanian on board, methinks) was tied up at the quay, and after a couple hours of waiting on the deck and in lines we finally reached the immigration checkpoint, I indeed had a surprise: not only were the immigration/customs roles combined, but after a brief conversation it transpired that they pretty much don't do any serious immigration work other than simple passport / I-94 checks.
I reckon that the focus there is mostly on customs checks, and not on immigration. This, I guess, is entirely justified from the pragmatic point of view, as it is expected that everyone who's coming to New Orleans on a cruise boat have left the same Port of New Orlean on the same boat a few days prior, and was either a US citizen or a properly admitted (and re-admissible) foreigner. So when coming back, s/he presumably would be readmitted in whatever status, and for the remainder of the same admission period, that he had before departure, thanks to the doctrine of the automatic revalidation.
Still... it is the cruise line personnel, not the CBP who checks the validity of the departing passengers's documents before they board. (This, of course, is much like what happens when passengers board an international flight: the airline is responsible for ensuring that the boarding passengers have the proper documents to at least "make an application for admission" at the port of entry of the destination country; otherwise, the airline is liable for transporting them back, and additional fines.) Surely there would be occasions when the passenger was generally admissible but still would need a new I-94 on re-entry? A somewhat far-fetched example is a foreigner with a valid visitor visa whose current I-94 is still valid on the day of departure, but is expiring during his cruise? A more realistic situation would be a cruise going from New Orlean to a Caribbean country other than Mexico. For travel to Caribbean islands, automatic visa revalidation only applies to aliens on student visas. Which means that all other foreigners with valid visas and I-94s, or on visa waivers, will have their Forms I-94 or I-94W invalidated once their ship stops at a place like Cayman Islands - won't they need new I-94 or I-94W issued once back in a US port? How would CBP at Erato Street deal with this?
On a more practical note, it seems to me that there are many people who consider the typical cruise travel mode (a 5 day trip, with only 16 hours in foreign ports) a waste of time, but would love to travel by boat if it were possible to schedule it in the same way you do airline flights. That is, if you could spend 2 nights and one day relaxing on a boat from a US port to Mexico, disembark there and have your week or two sitting in a Cancun hotel or hiking through the jungle, and then hop on a boat again for another 36 hour trip back to the States, it could attract a whole new set of customers to the cruise boat business. But for this to work, the boat companies would have to work with the government to set up full-service immigration processing at their US terminals.