US visa may save a life, agent says

A US visa could be a lifesaver, a former diplomat has warned, two months ahead of hurricane season.

Gail DuQuesnay, US consul in Cayman for nine years until 2006, fears that many residents are unaware that they may not be airlifted or take an air ambulance to the US without the necessary paperwork.

‘What a lot of people don’t realise is that on a British passport or a Cayman passport that does not hold a US visa in it, they can never be air-ambulanced,’ said Ms. DuQuesnay, who joined Cayman Travel Services as a travel agent less than a month ago.

‘That is a very, very important thing that a lot of people should be made aware of because, when I was US Consul, we ran into a lot of problems.’

It’s a factor that’s relevant to up to 97 per cent of the 53,886 population. In other words, anyone other than about 1,600 US citizens here on work permits, US citizens living here without a work permit and other nationalities who hold permanent residency in the US or other visas.

Although citizens from 27 countries, including the UK, qualify for visa waivers, which are valid for two years, they too could become unstuck.

This could become particularly relevant, said Ms. DuQuesnay, as hurricane season approaches June 1 recalling the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, four-and-a-half years ago.

‘People had to be airlifted and they did not have US visas,’ she said, explaining that a waiver would not be enough in times of trouble. ‘The Electronic System for Travel Authorization or the Visa Waiver Program is only valid on a commercial carrier. It is not valid on anything private and an air ambulance is considered private. You cannot enter the US unless you hold a valid, US visa even on the Visa Waiver Program which covers 27 countries.’

Aside from the UK, they are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

People from all but seven of those nations are here on work permits, latest immigration figures show, so they could be affected.

‘Everyone should have a US visa,’ said Ms. DuQuesnay, ‘because you never know what’s going to happen.’

‘If the people do not have a US visa, they cannot go to the US on an evacuation if they are on a private plane,’ she said. ‘There are a lot of companies that bring in planes to exit employees but if those employees do not have US visas, they cannot get on that charter.’

Hurricane preparedness is something very close to her heart. A travel professional for 41 years, her business Adventure Travel took a huge hit in 2004.

‘At one time, at had five people, when (we were) next to Burger King on the waterfront but after Ivan, we lost everything and I had to relocate,’ she said, ‘and in relocating I had to downsize. The rentals tripled and we were months without online services.’

Running the business became more challenging, over time, she said, leading to her eventually joining eight-strong Cayman Travel Services – a company founded in 1980 – where she’ll continue to provide visa support.

The company at Elizabeth Square in George Town, managed by Mindy Scott-Hennings, charges CI$50 to complete a visa application for an adult, CI$25 for a child. Assistance with the Visa Waiver Program costs CI$5.

Visa applicants must then phone ahead if they want to make an appointment with one of US embassies close at hand – the Bahamas and Jamaica.

‘The US embassies no longer make their own appointments,’ Ms. DuQuesnay cautioned. ‘Electronic forms are generated and a copy is generated by scanning the barcode at an US embassy around the world.’

In her nine years as consul, Ms. DuQuesnay mastered the intricacies of visa applications.

‘In my position, you learn a lot about immigration,’ she said. ‘A lot of people are confused with all the tools. We do US and Canadian visas. I try to answer whatever questions people may have about immigration.’