Since Hurricane Dorian devastated the islands earlier this month, killing at least 44 people, hundreds of Bahamian refugees have reportedly come to the United States after going through a screening process with only a passport and proof of no criminal record.
But on Sunday evening, more than 100 refugees were forced to disembark from a boat headed to Florida. The hurricane survivors had crowded into a ferry anchored in Freeport, Bahamas on Sunday evening, after days on the sweltering islands with limited food, water and power. Just 2½ hours across the ocean, safety and relief waited in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Then, an announcement blared from the boat’s intercom speakers.
“Please, all passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” a crew member said in a video captured on board.
The Bahamians were baffled about why they were turned away.
“At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing,” Renard Oliver, who held his infant daughter, told Brian Entin, a reporter for Miami TV station WSVN.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, however, says no rules have changed and laid the blame on the ferry operator, identified by local reporters as Balearia Caribbean, for not properly coordinating with government officials. Balearia Caribbean did not immediately return a request for comment.
“CBP was notified of a vessel preparing to embark an unknown number of passengers in Freeport and requested that the operator of the vessel coordinate with U.S. and Bahamian government officials in Nassau before departing The Bahamas,” the agency said in a statement shared with The Washington Post late on Sunday.
A CBP official in Florida told WSVN that it was a “business decision” by Balearia to remove the refugees without visas.
“If those folks did stay on the boat and arrived, we would have processed them, vetted them and worked within our laws and protocols and done what we had to do to facilitate them,” a CBP spokesman said. “They were not ordered off the boat by any U.S. government entity.”
On Saturday, nearly 1,500 refugees traveled to the United States on another cruise ship, reportedly without requiring visas. Entin reported that crew members on the Sunday ferry were told that the same rules were in effect before being rebuffed by CBP.
The refugees’ plight comes after bipartisan calls to waive all visa requirements for Bahamas survivors. On Wednesday, Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Sen. Rick Scott (R) of Florida wrote an open letter to President Trump urging him to allow in refugees with relatives in the United States. Eighteen other Florida lawmakers made a similar appeal.
“Incoming images and media reports indicate that thousands of homes have been destroyed and the basic infrastructure of many communities simply no longer exists,” the senators wrote. “Perhaps one of the most basic yet meaningful steps our government can take immediately is to ensure that those who have lost everything, including family members in some instances, are provided the opportunity for shelter and reunification with family in the United States.”
Just hours before the confusion on Sunday’s ferry, CBP’s acting commissioner emphasized that U.S. authorities would be expecting “proper documentation” from those fleeing the hurricane’s destruction.
“Those evacuating from the Bahamas who are U.S. citizens, Lawful Permanent Residents, and those with proper documentation to enter the U.S. are being processed at U.S. Ports of Entry,” CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan wrote on Twitter. “No visa document requirements have changed.”
Thousands have fled the islands after Dorian tore away roofs, flooded entire neighborhoods and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Most have gone to Florida, which has close historical ties to the Bahamas.
But many survivors seeking respite in Freeport on Sunday did not find it. Hundreds struggled to buy tickets on ferries and flights. Eventually, workers at the Freeport Harbour locked the terminal doors after all of the seats on the Sunday evening ferry had been sold. Many people continued to wait outside.
But after the announcement demanding visas, a long line of refugees slowly filed off the boat.
“This is terrible,” one woman who stayed on the ferry told WSVN as the ferry left the harbor.
Under existing U.S. policy, Bahamians can bypass the visa process by providing a passport and proof of no criminal record and going through a pre-screening conducted by CBP in Freeport and Nassau. On Saturday, a cruise ship called the Grand Celebration took nearly 1,500 refugees to Palm Beach, Fla., without requiring passengers to show U.S. visas, according to media reports.
As anger and confusion mounted Sunday, CBP cited the Grand Celebration’s arrival as proof that the United States isn’t blocking refugees from the island.
“CBP continues to process the arrivals of passengers evacuating from the Bahamas according to established policy and procedures — as demonstrated by the nearly 1,500 Hurricane Dorian survivors who arrived at the Port of Palm Beach, Fla., aboard a cruise ship on Saturday and were processed without incident,” a CBP spokesman said in a statement.
In that statement, CBP emphasized that Grand Celebration worked with officials in both nations before the voyage.
“The Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line coordinated their evacuation mission with U.S. and Bahamian government officials before departing The Bahamas, and coordinated with CBP prior to the arrival of the C/S Grand Celebration,” the federal agency said. “All of the evacuees possessed valid travel documents.”
CBP said Sunday that the U.S. Embassy in Nassau is open for emergency visa appointments. The agency also requested that all refugees present themselves at a U.S. port of entry so that their admission can be reported to Bahamian authorities searching for missing residents in Abaco and Grand Bahama.