Administration Clarifies and Limits Searches of Electronic Devices at Border

On January 4, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued Directive 3340-049A, governing border searches of electronic devices. CBP’s new directive updates and provides several improvements over the agency’s initial directive, published nine years ago, regarding the policies and procedures for border searches of electronic devices conducted in furtherance of CBP’s mission. CBP has implemented several key changes that aim to provide travelers with more clarity and protections regarding the procedures for electronic device searches; however, the numerous exceptions included in the new directive may, in practice, allow CBP to bypass some of these protections. Ultimately, the new directive serves as an upgrade over CBP’s initial directive, provides additional protection for travelers by incorporating a reasonable suspicion standard for most “advanced” searches, and provides specific procedures to be followed when travelers assert the attorney–client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine.

Under the new directive, CBP assures travelers that it will protect the rights of individuals against unreasonable search and seizure and ensure privacy protections while accomplishing its enforcement mission. However, it is important to note that travelers carrying electronic devices are guaranteed few protections limiting CBP’s searches and seizures of their devices. CBP regards such searches as integral to protecting border security and aiding in the detection of evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters, human and cash smuggling, contraband, and child pornography.

New Directive Applies Only to CBP

Importantly, the directive applies only to CBP. Thus, any border search conducted by agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is not subject to the protections of the directive. ICE and HSI are not included in the directive and those agencies have not issued a new policy or directive for their searches.

What Is an Electronic Device?

The directive governs searches of electronic devices conducted by CBP at the physical border, functional equivalent of the border, or the extended border. An “electronic device” is defined as “any device that may contain information in an electronic or digital form, such as computers, tablets, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, cameras, music and other media players.”

What Content May Be Searched?

Pursuant to the directive, border searches of electronic devices are limited to “only the information that is resident upon the device,” and officers are prohibited from intentionally using the device to access information that is solely stored remotely. To avoid access to information stored remotely, officers will either request that the traveler disable network connectivity or, where warranted by national security, law enforcement, officer safety, or other operational considerations, the officers themselves will disable network connectivity.

New Distinction Drawn Between Types of Searches

The new directive makes a distinction between “basic” searches, which may be conducted without suspicion, and “advanced” searches, which require officers to have reasonable suspicion of activity in violation of the laws enforced or administered by CBP. The directive also carves out an exception to allow for advanced searches without reasonable suspicion when national security concerns exist. For example, a national security concern may arise in scenarios involving a national security-related lookout in combination with the presence of an individual on a government-operated and government-vetted terrorist watch list. During a basic search, an officer may examine the electronic device and review and analyze information encountered at the border. During an advanced search, an officer connects external equipment to an electronic device not merely to gain access to the device, but to review, copy, and/or analyze its contents.

Protections for the Attorney–Client Privilege and Attorney Work Product Doctrine

The new directive includes detailed procedures for searches that may involve the attorney–client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine. However, CPB’s detailed procedures are not applicable to other sensitive material, such as medical records or business confidential information. When an individual asserts the attorney–client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine, the CBP officer will seek clarification—in writing, if practicable—from the individual asserting privilege to assist CBP in identifying the privileged information. While the directive instructs officers to handle medical records and other work-related or business confidential information in accordance with applicable federal laws and CBP policies, it does not require officers to follow the detailed procedures set forth for searches involving attorney–client privilege or the attorney work-product doctrine, and no new protections have been added for these other types of sensitive material.

Travelers Explicitly Required to Provide Passcodes and Encrypted Information

With regard to passcodes or encrypted information, travelers are obligated to present electronic devices and their contents in a condition that allows inspection. If an officer is unable to complete an inspection because the device is protected by passcode or encryption, the officer may detain the device pending a determination as to its admissibility, exclusion, or other disposition. Additional consequences, such as travel delay or denial of entry may potentially arise if a traveler refuses to provide passcodes or encrypted information.

Detention of Electronic Devices

Searches may take place on-site or off-site and are to be completed as expeditiously as possible. Unless extenuating circumstances exist, the detention of devices ordinarily should not exceed five days.

Impact on Employers

Despite the improved guidance and clarified limits in the new CBP policy, employers may still be at some risk when employees carry electronic devices containing company data during international travel. While the CBP directive contains specific procedures for border searches when confronted with sensitive business confidential information, the directive does not preclude a border search of business confidential information. Thus, employers may wish to consider whether it is feasible to restrict employees from carrying electronic devices containing sensitive company data during international travel. When practicable, some employers already seek to determine whether they can provide “clean” electronic devices to be used by employees during international travel so that the devices do not retain company data. These practices may be effective for many employers since border searches of electronic devices are limited to data resident on the device, and CBP is not permitted to connect devices to external networks.

 

© 2018, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Revised Travel Ban Coming?

The Trump Administration reportedly may replace the current travel ban with a country-specific set of restrictions.

In June, the Supreme Court allowed the government to begin enforcing the 90-day travel ban against individuals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen who had no bona fide relationship to the United States. The 90-day ban will expire on September 24. The 120-day ban on refugees also went into effect in June. The Supreme Court plans to hear the full travel ban case on October 10.

The Department of Homeland Security’s recently finalized classified report on screening foreign travelers may support anticipated changes to the travel ban. Substituting a new ban could change the dynamics, potentially making the case before the Supreme Court moot or leading to a remand of the case for further hearing at the lower court level.

The new restrictions are expected to be open-ended and based upon the DHS review and identification of countries with deficient security standards. More than six countries may have been identified. Additional countries could be added to the banned list, others could be removed, and still others might become subject to certain visa restrictions.

This post was written by Michael H. Neifach of Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2017
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Review

Nonimmigrant Visa Applicants May Have Longer Waits

President Donald Trump has issued an executive order striking the 80-percent/three-week goal for interviewing nonimmigrant visa applicants following submission of applications.

Since September 11, 2001, the State Department has given priority to security over quick visa adjudications. For many reasons, including heightened security, between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. share of the global tourism market had dropped markedly. The Obama Administration, concerned about the effect on the U.S. economy, took measures to “support a prosperous and secure travel and tourism industry in the United States.” The first steps were in 2010, when the National Export Initiative and the Travel Promotion Act became law. They mandated intergovernmental cooperation to work to establish a stronger brand identity for the U.S. and to promote exports. By 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to continue the process of fostering more tourism and travel: Establishing Visa and Foreign Visitor Processing Goals and the Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness Order. One section ordered Consulates to “ensure that 80 percent of nonimmigrant visa applicants are interviewed within three weeks of receipt of application, recognizing that resource and security considerations . . . may dictate specific exceptions[.]”

Although the Obama EO contained a security waiver, on June 21, 2017, Trump signed his own EO, striking the 80 percent/three-week goal. This is being done in conjunction with the travel ban partially reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court and the extreme vetting procedures instituted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Pursuant to extreme vetting, if deemed necessary to determine eligibility, visa applicants may be asked to supply:

  • Travel history during the last 15 years, including source of funding for travel;

  • Address history during the last 15 years;

  • Employment history during the last 15 years;

  • All passport numbers and country of issuance held by the applicant;

  • Names and dates of birth for all siblings;

  • Names and dates of birth for all children;

  • Names and dates of birth for all current and former spouses, or civil or domestic partners;

  • Social media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the last five years; and

  • Phone numbers and email addresses used during the last five years.

Assessing this amount of information and data obviously will take time. A White House spokesman stated that the elimination of the “arbitrary” three-week goal was needed because “[t]he president expects careful, accurate vetting of visa applicants, not a rushed process . . . .”

Business groups already troubled about possible deleterious effects from the travel ban and extreme vetting have expressed concern about additional delays in visa issuance. According to State Department’s own data, the nonimmigrant visa issuance rate has been dropping. In March, 907,166 were issued and the number was down to 735,000 in April.

This post was written by William J. Manning of Jackson Lewis P.C.

Restrictions on Personal Electronic Devices, including Laptops, on Flights from 10 Airports

No personal electronic devices (PEDs) larger than a cellphone or smartphone, such as a laptop computer or e-reader, can be carried into the cabin of airplanes flying directly to the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey, the DHS and TSA announced on March 21, 2017.

Following are the airports:

  • Abu Dhabi International Airport, Abu Dhabi

  • Dubai International Airport, Dubai

  • Cairo International Airport, Egypt

  • Queen Alia International Airport, Jordan

  • Kuwait International Airport, Kuwait

  • Mohammed V Airport, Casablanca, Morocco

  • Hamad International Airport, Qatar

  • King Abdul-Aziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

  • King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

  • Ataturk International Airport, Istanbul, Turkey

The carriers involved will have 96 hours, until early in the morning of March 25, to comply with this directive.

No American carriers are affected because none have direct flights to the U.S. from the 10 airports. Based on itineraries, the following carriers have been notified and will be affected:

  • Egypt Air

  • Emirates Airways

  • Etihad Airways

  • Kuwait Airways

  • Qatar Airways

  • Royal Air Maroc

  • Royal Jordanian Airlines

  • Saudi Arabian Airlines

  • Turkish Airlines

All passengers will be subject to these restrictions, including U.S. citizens, regardless of Trusted Traveler Status. Approved medical devices will be allowed on board, but only after additional screening is conducted. TSA advises passengers with connections through one of the 10 airports to place large electronic devices into their checked baggage at their originating airport.

The DHS states that it has put these restrictions in place because “[the agency’s] information indicates that terrorist groups’ efforts to execute an attack against the aviation sector are intensifying . . . .” These restrictions will remain in effect indefinitely “until the threat changes.” TSA emphasizes that it “continually assesses and evaluates the current threat environment and adjusts security measures as necessary to ensure the highest levels of aviation security without unnecessary disruption to travelers.”

In addition to the new PEDs process, all travelers to the U.S. should be prepared for the possibility that their electronic devices might be “detained” for examination and inspection upon arrival in the U.S. Indeed, in February 2017, after the issuance of the first travel ban, Sidd Bikkannavar, a U.S.-born NASA scientist who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory returning from Patagonia was held at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston until he agreed to unlock his phone.

Following the DHS announcement, the U.K. announced a similar restriction on direct flights to the U.K. affecting airports in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. This restriction will affect British carriers including British Airways as well as foreign carriers. Canada may soon announce such restriction as well.

Tips for Surviving in a Time of Immigration Uncertainty

immigration travel banWe planned to write a blog about the revised travel ban Executive Order as soon as it came out. That the revised order was delayed for several weeks until March 6 highlights the uncertainty we face in 2017.[1] Below we try to answer various questions we regularly receive about immigration issues.

  1. Is domestic airplane travel OK? This may sound like a simple question, but recent events suggest more caution may be wise. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents recently met a plane landing at JFK Airport in New York City, and asked everyone about their immigration status.[2] The agents were looking for someone who had an old deportation order, but it is possible that anyone without evidence of status could have faced delays. This is a good time to remind ourselves that the law requires anyone who is not a U.S. citizen to carry evidence of status at all times (green card, Employment Authorization Document (EAD), Form I-94 or electronic I-94 printout, valid, unexpired nonimmigrant DHS admission or parole stamp in a foreign passport, etc.).[3] Try to make it easy for a government officer.

  2. Isn’t that overreacting based on one incident? Maybe, but the bigger picture is that immigration enforcement agents have more discretion and wider operating room than before.[4] Two memos issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on February 20 allow for “expedited removal,” which is a fast track process that skips a hearing with an immigration judge.[5] Expedited removal now can apply to anyone who entered the country within the past 2 years (used to be 2 weeks), and anywhere in the United States (used to be within 100 miles of the border).[6] Expedited removal happens quickly, sometimes within a matter of days. Having a copy of a document showing status and that you have been in the United States more than two years could help avoid questioning and expedited removal.

  3. How about electronic devices? Can those be searched at the airport or border? The simple answer is “yes,” and this is happening more often.[7] We recommend that private information, such as a doctor with patient information, should be encrypted. According to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website,[8] CBP officers may search laptops, cell phones, or other electronic devices. CBP may not select someone for a personal search or secondary inspection based on religion, race, national origin, gender, ethnicity, or political beliefs. U.S. citizens may also be questioned and have their devices seized for refusal to provide passwords or unlock devices, but cannot be prevented from entering the United States. Noncitizens may, however, be denied entry. Adding to the uncertainty about how this will play out is a section in one of the January Executive Orders that directs federal government agencies to make sure they “exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents” from Privacy Act protections concerning personal information.

  4. What does this mean for people from the six countries covered by the new travel ban? Will the court battle still continue? The new order clarifies that green card holders and Iraqis are NOT affected by the visa ban, and that people who had visas revoked or cancelled by the first order may be able to get a travel letter to return. The new order takes effect March 16, 2017, and lasts for 90 days. People with valid visas stamps in their passports can still use them, but new visa stamps will not be issued with very limited discretionary exceptions. The Visa Interview Waiver program is suspended for all countries, and the order states that DHS may add countries to the list after further review. People who are citizens of the six countries can still face additional questioning when they enter the United States as part of a general pattern of enhanced vetting. Travel for citizens of the six countries remains a calculated risk.

We expect that court challenges will continue. The ban still focuses on six predominently Muslim countries, which some see as a religious-based action.[9] There are still arguments about the negative effects on U.S. business and academic programs.

  1. What does this all mean for DACA recipients? The January Executive Orders state that the deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) program remains in effect, but that DACA “will be addressed in future guidance.” This is good news for the 750,000 plus people who have DACA. However, continuation of the program is not guaranteed. And the January Executive Orders call for greater enforcement against anyone with any kind of criminal issue or with a previous deportation order. Some DACA recipients have minor criminal issues – will they be able to renew? Some recipients have previous deportation orders – how will they be treated? DACA recipients should carry their DACA approval and work card with them, should keep investigating ways to get back into status, and talk to an attorney or legal service agency if they have ANY criminal issue, no matter how minor.

  2. What does this mean for undocumented parents of students who want to fly within the United States for their child’s graduation? Some of them have traveled before with no problems. President Obama’s “Priorities Memo” used the idea of prosecutorial discretion to give some level of comfort to those at the bottom of the priority list for enforcement. The new orders make clear that there is a top of the list, but no bottom. The law is the law, and anyone undocumented who is caught could be removed. Anyone who is undocumented who is considering traveling should talk to an attorney or legal service agency to evaluate their own particular situation. For example, immigrationlawhelp.org has a list of accredited agencies. Also, this is not a completely new situation. Every year we see family members abroad who do not receive tourist visas to come to the United States. For those situations, some schools have set up a Skype feed of the ceremony through someone’s cell phone, or sent the family a photo of the student graduating, or other clever ways of trying to include the family in the event.

  3. Speaking of DACA, can many of them really move beyond DACA now? It is certainly worth asking. Many filed for DACA on their own, and have never had a legal consultation despite the fact that their immigration histories can be incredibly complicated. Most interestingly, a growing number of DACA recipients got DACA under age 18½ and now have degrees. Those people MAY (emphasize “may”) not have what is called “unlawful presence,” and MAY be able to consular process an employment based visa or green card.

  4. Going beyond travel, are there any other ways campuses can prepare for new immigration enforcement priorities, short of declaring a “sanctuary campus”? Yes, there are some basic steps that campuses can take. One set of model guidelines focuses on interaction with government officials.[10] Campus response has varied but generally been strong in favor of international education and diversity. A Washington Post article found that the vast majority of schools have made some kind of statement.[11] Some schools have been concerned about the political effects of opposing the travel bans. They worry that if they declare themselves immigration sanctuaries they may put a target on their backs. While some schools may be less vocal in their responses, most are supporting students and scholars who are concerned, and connecting students with extra services including counseling and legal services.

  5. If I feel my school is not doing enough, what can I do? In immigration, stories matter. For example, an Iranian graduate student may be thinking of leaving the United States to do a post doc in another country, or cannot travel to present work at a conference abroad, or is simply not sleeping or eating well out of concern, or have a spouse is not still able to enter the United States. These stories help show the real impact of the travel ban. And facts matters – there are some good articles and websites that provide data on the basis of the travel ban and the effects, and also on the positive impact of immigrants on our economy.[12]

  6. I heard the Executive Orders canceled all of President Obama’s orders except for DACA. Does that include the “sensitive locations” memo that said enforcement should not take place at sensitive locations such as campuses, churches, and hospitals? It appears that the ban on enforcement at sensitive locations survives. This policy is still on the ICE website, and in a DHS Q&A.[13] We hope this will continue.

  7. Is it true that the Administration and Congress plan to cut back F-1 STEM OPT and the H-1B program, and raise the minimum salaries for H-1B workers? A lot of ideas and draft memos are floating around Washington how to “fix” immigration, including the H-1B system. Bills pending in Congress would amend the H-1B process. The White House may ask DHS to conduct a study of the visa process to determine which visa regulations may or may not be in the national interest, and to make recommendations on how to improve visa systems, including the H-1B system. Are we sure that nothing like this will happen quickly, surprising us the way the travel ban did? Not sure, but passing legislation in Congress and amending federal regulations are normally long-term projects. Remember, the Obama administration was successfully sued for trying to make big changes without formal procedures.

  8. That’s 11 questions – anything else I should know? We all need to remember the energy it takes to operate in uncertainty. In a recent presentation at a university, the director of the counseling center explained that uncertainty can be more tiring and emotionally challenging than bad news. At least with bad news, we can focus attention on how to address it. So hang in there!

ARTICLE BY  Steve Yale-Loehr of Miller Mayer LLP & Dan Berger of Curran & Berger, LLP
© Copyright 2013 – 2017 Miller Mayer LLP. All Rights Reserved.

[1] The new executive order is at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/06/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states (Mar. 6, 2017).

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/papers-please/517887/?utm_source=fbb.

[3] INA § 264(e) provides: “Every alien, eighteen years of age and over, shall at all times carry with him and have in his personal possession any certificate of alien registration or alien registration receipt card issued to him pursuant to subsection (d). Any alien who fails to comply with the provisions of this subsection shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall upon conviction for each offense be fined not to exceed $100 or be imprisoned not more than thirty days, or both.” 8 C.F.R. § 264.1(b) lists the acceptable types of “registration” document that must be carried.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/25/us/ice-immigrant-deportations-trump.html.

[5] The DHS memos and accompanying fact sheets and Q&As are at https://www.dhs.gov/executive-orders-protecting-homeland.

[6] For an article discussing whether expedited removal is constitutional, see David Savage, Trump’s fast-track deportations face legal hurdle: Do unauthorized immigrants have a right to a hearing before a judge?, Mar. 3, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-deport-legal-20170302-story.html.

[7] For general information on the rights of travelers regarding social media accounts and electronic devices, see https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/what-do-when-encountering-law-enforcement-airports-and-other-ports-entry-us. For an interesting NPR piece on this issue, see http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/02/16/border-agent-unlock-phone.

[8] https://www.cbp.gov/border-security/protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-evidence-for-trumps-travel-ban-simply-isnt-there/2017/02/27/90e228ac-fd36-11e6-8f41-ea6ed597e4ca_story.htmlhttp://wapo.st/2mZbkx8.

[10] https://www.nilc.org/issues/immigration-enforcement/campus-safe-zones-language-college/.

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/02/20/universities-overwhelmingly-objected-to-the-trump-travel-ban-here-are-the-values-they-emphasized/

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/visas-impact/; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-31/trump-s-immigration-ban-could-cost-u-s-colleges-700-million; immigrationimpact.org.

[13] https://www.ice.gov/ero/enforcement/sensitive-loc; https://www.dhs.gov/news/2017/02/21/qa-dhs-implementation-executive-order-border-security-and-immigration-enforcement (Question 28).

As Europe divides, Africa Unites with Common African Union E-passport

In 2015, African Union (AU) Commissioner for Political Affairs, Dr. Aisha Abdullahi, indicated that a plan was underway to implement a single African passport. After recent announcements that the AU passport would be unveiled at the AU Summit in Kigali this month, the long-awaited continental e-passport has finally been revealed. The first recipients of the pan-African passport were Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country hosted the summit, and Chadian President Idriss Deby, the chairperson of the AU. Others to receive some of the first pilot passports will include heads of state, foreign ministers and permanent representatives of the member states to the AU’s Addis Ababa headquarters. The timeline for the common passport roll-out to citizens of member countries is uncertain, although AU officials hope that citizens will have access by 2018.

african union e-passport

This long-awaited passport is targeted to address the perennial problem of border openness in sub-Saharan Africa; closed borders are cited as a substantial impediment to both intra-African trade and economic growth.

Out of the 54 countries in Africa, to date, only thirteen allow citizens from any other African country to travel without advance visas. These significant barriers to intra-African travel are believed to be a leading cause of the low levels of trade between nations on the continent. Whereas intra-European trade accounts for approximately 60% of all European trade and intra-North American trade accounts for 40% of all trade on the North American continent, intra-African trade only counts for about 13% of African trade. While a small portion of this difference may be explained by unrecorded informal trade across porous borders, the difference is nevertheless notable.

There is evidence that opening borders can lead to economic growth globally, and experiences on the African continent support this contention. For example, in 2013, Rwanda announced that travelers from any African country could receive a visa on arrival. After improving visa openness, Rwanda’s GDP growth increased to 7% in 2014, tourism revenues rose by 4%, and the number of African travelers to Rwanda increased 22%.

Rwanda has led the charge for the creation of an AU passport. Now, the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, has indicated that Rwanda is fully prepared to begin issuing the common passport to all of its citizens. In contrast, other African nations would need to enact legislation that would allow them to begin issuing the African Union passports to citizens. Based on the general response to the common passport—the AU has been “overwhelmed” by requests for the passport—it is likely that AU member countries will feel pressure from their own citizens to do so quickly.

Interestingly, Morocco—the only African country that is not currently a member of the AU—has asked to rejointhe organization after a decades-long absence during the same summit in which the AU passports were unveiled. The timing of Morocco’s request could allow the county to take advantage of the new common passport and the expanding perks of AU membership.

The unified passport will undoubtedly present challenges for countries with less advanced border-security technology and fewer resources to devote to border control. Currently, only nine African countries offer eVisas. The AU passport is biometric and considered secure, but the issuance and acceptance of these e-passports at entry points of countries currently without e-passports may present a problem.

Relaxed immigration restrictions may also lead to larger inflows of migrant workers to the more economically stable countries on the continent, which may stoke the sort of anti-immigrant sentiment that led to violence in South Africa last year.

Travelers who are not citizens of AU member countries will not be able to benefit from the common passport, and will still face the relatively restrictive entry requirements on the continent. However, the enhanced labor mobility resulting from the AU’s e-passport program  could have a catalytic effect on trans-African investments and commerce.

© 2016 Covington & Burling LLP

Hotels and Hospitality in Cuba: OFAC and Obama Paving the Way

cuba_800_11429With more flights, relaxing regulations, a historic presidential trip to Cuba, and news of hospitality services expanding into Cuba, the pathway into Cuba for hotels and hospitality companies seems smooth.  But businesses should look out for the potential hurdles and compliance risks.  Don’t fret – we can help you welcome your guests.

Reserve Your Room: Regulatory Background. Since President Obama announced the intent to improve our country’s relationship with Cuba and its people a year and a half ago, several revisions to the sanctions regime have focused on easing restrictions related to travel between the two nations.  In February 2016, Cuba and the United States agreed to reestablish commercial air travel between the two countries.  According to media reports, this agreement means the potential for 110 daily round-trip flights in and out of Cuba, including 20 daily flights to Havana.

Soon after the agreement was announced, major U.S. airlines submitted applications to fly commercial flights to Cuba.  Though tourist travel is still prohibited, twelve fairly broad categories of travel are authorized, including family visits, travel for government work, journalism, professional research, humanitarian work and educational activities, and “people-to-people” educational travel.

In mid-March of this year, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) again revised the Cuban Asset Control Regulations (CACR), permitting more travel-related transactions.  According to OFAC, the steps “expand opportunities for economic engagement between the Cuban people and the American business community.”  The agency announced the changes in preparation for President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba.

  • People-to-people educational travel. Previously, the general authorization for educational travel required that trips took place under the sponsorship of an organization and required that a representative from the organization accompany the travelers. The regulations no longer require booking through an authorized organization when going to Cuba under the people-to-people educational travel general license. This means that U.S. persons can freely travel to Cuba to engage in educational exchange activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote Cubans’ independence from their government, as long as they keep records of the travel transactions and full-time schedule of activities.

  • Financial Transactions. The regulations enable U.S. banks to process U.S. dollars and travelers’ checks from Cuban banks, to conduct U-turn transactions in which Cubans have an interest, and to allow Cuban nationals to open bank accounts to receive payments in the U.S.

  • Business Presence. In addition, the regulations allow certain carrier and travel services providers to maintain a business presence in Cuba under a general license.  This means that travel-service providers are authorized to establish and maintain subsidiaries, branches, offices, joint ventures, franchises, and other business relationships with any Cuban national, and enter into all necessary agreements or arrangements with such entity or individual.

These changes encourage much more travel between Cuba and the United States, ease restrictions that affect the ability to operate hotels and hospitality services in Cuba, and demonstrate a policy shift in favor of facilitating business, particularly in the travel sector, in Cuba.

Checking In: President Obama’s Historic Visit.  In late March 2016, President Obama visited Cuba as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928.  Not only was President Obama’s visit a diplomatic feat as he quoted Cuban independence poet Jose Marti’s line: “Cultivo una rosa blanca” (“Cultivate a white rose”) in a live address on Cuban television, but it was also a marked invitation for more American business involvement in the island nation.  Notably, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson accompanied President Obama on his visit.  According to media reports, Marriott is pursuing business opportunities to run or develop hotels on the island, and to provide training and opportunities for Cuban nationals to supply hotel needs.

Enjoy Your Stay: A Suite of Opportunities.  As a result of the steady changes in the travel regulations, many hotels and hospitality companies are eager to take advantage of the opportunities that await in Cuba.  Even before the most recent updates announced this year, Airbnb announced its presence in Cuba to provide bookings for U.S. travelers in the authorized travel categories.  More recently, the company announced it has received permission from OFAC to open its doors to non-U.S. travelers as well.  Starwood has reportedly signed three deals to open properties in Havana, apparently being the first hospitality company to obtain specific authorization from OFAC to operate hotels in Cuba.  We think this signals OFAC’s willingness to use its licensing authority favorably for hotel and hospitality companies looking to develop in Cuba.

Earlier this month, a trade fair in Havana hosted a hall full of companies in the construction industry eager to get in on the ground floor of real estate and hotel projects that seem to be on the horizon.  U.S. travel to Cuba reportedly increased between 77 percent in 2015, and this upward trend is expected to continue as a result of the recent regulatory changes.  As the travel restrictions ease, travel-related businesses may gain greater latitude to develop the infrastructure to support such travelers and provide economic benefits to the Cuban people.

Check All Your Belongings: Compliance Challenges to Consider

  • Working under General Licenses. Though there is a general license authorizing certain travel services, providing lodging services is still prohibited unless specifically licensed by OFAC. Tourist travel is still prohibited by statute. Businesses that wish to operate under the general licenses must put together procedures that comply with these restrictions.

  • Getting Authorization. In order to effectively negotiate and finalize agreements with Cuban counterparties for the provision of services outside the general licenses, U.S. companies must receive authorization from OFAC.  This makes doing business difficult because putting in the resources and time to apply and receive authorization may not make business sense unless companies have concrete opportunities.  OFAC is currently inundated with applications and Cuba questions.  Hotel and hospitality companies looking to expand in Cuba should plan as early as possible and be prepared for the license application process and approval to take several months.

  • Restrictions on Property and Development. The inability to own property outright under Cuban law is an obstacle for many hotel companies that seek to invest in facilities that will maintain and build their brands.  It is a challenge to find an existing property to develop or property on which to build. It can be an even greater challenge to import the materials needed to develop and maintain the property.  Even if a company acquires authorization to build and develop a hotel, there will be a plethora of suppliers who may also need to seek authorization.  S. businesses must plan accordingly when seeking authority to develop properties.

  • Dealing with the Cuban Government. S. businesses will have to learn quickly about negotiating with the Cuban government and getting government approvals because most potential counterparties are state-owned, and each step in the development process will likely include government involvement. This also raises corruption risks (Don’t forget the FCPA!) as companies wine and dine potential counterparties and work toward getting permits.

  • Employee Base. For foreign companies seeking to establish a brand in the market, restrictions on hiring may pose extreme challenges.  Employment in Cuba is not left to market dynamics. Hiring Cuban employees involves working with the Cuban government and hiring the personnel designated by the government.  Generally the employer is required to pay the Cuban government directly, and the government pays the employees.  Complying with such Cuban laws may fly directly in the face of a company’s business model and may compound the U.S. law compliance challenges.

  • Cuban Law. Having counsel who understand the Cuban legal landscape and regulatory challenges will be crucial for U.S. companies.  Structuring deals in Cuba that comply with Cuban law can be tricky.  The legal infrastructure in Cuba for foreign investment is not well developed, so U.S. companies will face a steep learning curve to successfully finalize and implement deals in Cuba.  Moreover, Cuban lawyers have very different ethical obligations than U.S. clients may be used to (including a virtual complete lack of attorney-client privilege).

Even with the host of challenges, exploring the Cuban market presents an intriguing opportunity for hotel and hospitality companies.  With the right compliance strategy and the right team, U.S. businesses could enjoy their stay in Cuba for years to come.

© 2016, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.