Evacuating Bahamians Were Kicked Off A Ferry To The U.S. Over Visa Policies

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It's been days since Hurricane Dorian left the Bahamas after hitting the islands on Sept. 1, but the devastating damage it has left behind is ongoing. In one attempt to assist survivors, independent boat companies have begun transporting evacuees to nearby Florida for temporary relief and access to water, groceries, and supplies. For some, however, even this small glimmer of hope quickly turned to disappointment when evacuating Bahamians were kicked off a ferry to the U.S. over reported complications about visa policies.

Brian Entin, an investigative reporter for WSVN News in Miami, broke the news after days of covering Freeport, Bahamas — where hundreds of Bahamians were lining up on Sept. 8 to head to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Entin documented the situation as the crowd continued to grow, only to encounter a range of technical issues. The ferry sold out, people without internet access were asked to purchase tickets online, and no centralized source of information was available to keep them updated, he tweeted.

After making it onto the ferry, Entin posted a Twitter video which showed another obstacle: changing documentation requirements.A video captured an announcement telling anyone without a visa to get off the ferry. Passengers told Entin that they were previously told standard U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) rules — which allows Bahamians without a visa to fly into the United States with a valid passport and no criminal record — had been extended to boat travel.

In a statement to Elite Daily, a CBP spokesperson said the organization had "requested that the operator of the vessel coordinate with U.S. and Bahamian government officials in Nassau before departing the Bahamas.” The statement continued,

Everyone who arrives to the United States from another country must present themselves to a CBP officer for inspection at an official CBP Port of Entry. All persons must possess valid identity and travel documents. CBP has a Preclearance operation in Nassau. CBP is committed to carrying out our duties with professionalism and efficiency — facilitating lawful international travel and trade.

According to Entin, the ferry crew claimed they had been told passengers with passports and a copy of their police record would be allowed into the United States, but after they boarded the passengers, the crew was told people without visas would not be accepted. Rules posted on the CBP website note that Bahamian citizens may enter the United States without a visa if they are traveling by air through a CBP Pre-clearance Facility. On Sept. 7, over 1,000 evacuees arrived safely in Florida on a free cruise ship voyage, per Reuters. Officials reportedly checked their passport and visa documents before they boarded the ship.

One CBP officer in Florida told Entin that removing passengers was “a business decision” made by the ferry company considering the evacuees would have been processed — with visas or not — once they arrived in the United States. “If they had done that with us and worked with us we would have been there to facilitate that process. However, they didn’t,” another officer said. “Why they said that, I wouldn’t know, and it’s really heartbreaking.” Elite Daily reached out to Balearia Caribbean, the ferry operator, for comment, but did not immediately hear back.

Dorian, which first made landfall in the Bahamas on Sept. 2 as a Category 5 hurricane, hovered over the country for days before heading toward the U.S. coast. The most recent reports estimate at least 44 people have died, with countless others missing. Dorian ravaged entire communities to wooden debris and have left homes and hospitals without water, electricity and internet.

Democratic presidential candidates soon began to weigh in. On Sept. 8, Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke called the reports “the height of cruelty — denying help to those who need it most.” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro also brought the president into the equation and tweeted on Sept. 9, “Instead of providing protection and assistance to the victims of Hurricane Dorian, the President has chosen to ignore their needs and deny their entry.” The immigration advocacy group Familes Belong Together called the reports “reprehensible.”

The evacuees reportedly intended to go grocery shopping and load up on supplies before returning, according to tweets from Entin, but now they may not even be able to do that. In the meantime, here are small ways you can help and give to the Bahamas as the country begins recovering from the tragedy.