Hundreds of Hurricane Dorian survivors 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.
Since Dorian devastated the islands this month, killing at least 44 people, hundreds of Bahamian refugees have reportedly bypassed the visa process to come to the United States. The more than 100 refugees forced to disembark Sunday night 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. “It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughter cry, but it is what it is.”
The incident, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection blamed on the ferry operator, comes amid bipartisan calls to waive all visa requirements for Bahamas survivors. At a news conference Monday, acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan said that there was “confusion” around the issue but that the agency’s policy hadn’t changed.
“This is a humanitarian mission,” Morgan said. “If your life is in jeopardy and you’re in the Bahamas … you’re going to be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not.”
But, he added, “we still need to vet you to make sure we’re not letting dangerous people in.”
Later in the day, President Trump told reporters that we “have to be very careful” when letting people from the Bahamas into the United States, saying that “everybody needs totally proper documentation.”
“I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States — including some very bad people and very bad gang members,” Trump said.
Under existing U.S. policy, Bahamians can enter the United States without a visa by providing a passport and proof of no criminal record and going through pre-screening conducted by CBP in Freeport and Nassau.
On Monday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded to Trump’s remarks, saying she was “deeply disappointed by this display of callous disregard for human suffering.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) wrote an open letter to Trump last week urging him to allow in refugees with relatives in the United States, tweeted that the president’s statement “is not new policy.” He said that he and Scott have asked for “some accommodation from the administration” because some Bahamas survivors may have lost their passports or other identification.
“I understand the narrative the U.S. is denying entry to victims of a storm is attractive. But it’s not accurate,” he said. “Current policy is still operative now. Although I would like to see some flexibility.”
The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued Monday evening, said: “The U.S. Embassy in Nassau is open for emergency visa appointments and CBP Ports of Entry are prepared should Bahamians request to temporarily relocate to the United States.”
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.
Entin reported that crew members on the Sunday ferry were told that the same rules were in effect.
CBP said the ferry operator, identified by local reporters as Balearia Caribbean, was at fault for not properly coordinating with government officials.
“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 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 in the interview, adding, “They were not ordered off the boat by any U.S. government entity.”
But Balearia Caribbean said it had “the understanding” that the passengers could go to the United States without visas and only learned otherwise after they had boarded.
“We boarded these passengers with the understanding that they could travel to the United States without visas, only to later having been [be] advised that in order to travel to Ft. Lauderdale they required prior in-person authorization from the immigration authorities in Nassau,” a Balearia spokesman said in a statement sent to WSVN.
Thousands have fled the islands after Dorian tore away roofs, flooded 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 ferry Sunday evening had been sold. Many people continued to wait outside.
People waited in line for hours to buy tickets and board the evening Balearia Caribbean ferry.
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.
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.
The refugees’ plight comes after Rubio and Scott’s letter and a similar appeal by 18 other Florida lawmakers.
On Monday, shortly before Morgan’s news conference, Scott urged CBP officials and the Bahamian government to clarify the current visa rules.
“As hundreds of thousands of Bahamians seek refuge or start to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian, we cannot have the kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport,” Scott said in a statement.
In the Bahamas, tens of thousands are still without homes, electricity or clean water. Mark Green, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told The Post that it looked as though the islands had been “hit by a nuclear bomb.” Bahamian officials warned that the death toll on the islands is likely to rise significantly as authorities continue to survey the destruction.