Bahamians seeking temporary refuge in the U.S. after the archipelago was ravaged by Hurricane Dorian were forced to get off of a rescue ferry that was headed to Florida because they didn’t have U.S. visas.
According to WSVN, the residents were told that all they needed to get to Port Everglades in Florida was their Bahamian passports and a document from police verifying that they had no criminal record. The evacuees reportedly waited in line for hours with the documents they were told that they need on Sunday night, only to be told something different, just as the ferry was about to take off.
“Passengers who do not have U.S. visas, please proceed to disembark,” a ferry employee announced over the loudspeakers.
Crew members from Baleària, the ferry company involved, said that they were told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that they would not allow entry to Bahamians who did not have visas.
“They’re saying that they just got a call from CBP and CBP told them that everyone that doesn’t have a U.S. visa and who was traveling on police record has to come off,” Renard Oliver, one of the people who was trying to leave the islands said. “At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s hurting because [I’m] watching my daughters cry.”
“I think this is terrible. I think they should allow everyone to come into the U.S.,” another passenger who was trying to leave, added. “They originally said that you could come without a police record and without a visa and now they’re taking that back. That’s really ridiculous.”
To make matters worse, according to the news site, passengers had bought their tickets for over $100, and were then left in limbo about what to do or how or when they would be able to leave the islands.
Brian Entin, a WSVN reporter who was on board the ferry and live-tweeting everything that occurred pointed out that evacuees had no intentions of staying the U.S., and only wanted a moment to collect themselves outside of the devastation.
While the ferry company pointed fingers at CBP, the agency’s Florida officer turned around and blamed Baleària.
“It breaks my heart because it’s like when you raise somebody’s hopes and then you pop the balloon… That, in my opinion, is what Baleària did,” CBP Florida spokesperson Michael Silva told Newsweek. “It raised the expectations of these poor people who have been through an unimaginable situation with the hurricane…They raised their expectations only to then leave them terribly disappointed.”
Silva said that the CBP had told Baleària that they would need to take evacuees to Nassau to obtain their visas before heading to Florida.
The ferry company, he insisted, took it upon themselves to force evacuees to disembark instead.
Even then, Silva said that while the agency has stressed that shipping companies and airlines assisting Bahamians evacuating should ensure that evacuees have the proper documents, the agency would have found a way to process those who are now left behind, if they had made it to a U.S. port.
“We would have definitely worked with this transportation company or any other transportation company to…facilitate this process,” Silva said. “CBP is not denying or discouraging evacuation efforts and we empathize with the plight of the Bahamian people.”
Silva also slammed the ferry company for charging evacuees.
“I believe they were charging about $150, which is not inexpensive because I think airfare is about the same,” he said. “It was a for-profit cruise. It wasn’t a humanitarian mission.”
Silva said that the agency “will continue to support evacuation efforts” however, added that “it is vitally important for accountability that Bahamian residents and other visitors make sure they are properly documented by going to Nassau and working with the Bahamian and U.S. governments.”
In the meantime, lawmakers in Florida – including state Rep. Shevrin Jones (D-Broward County) and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) have been demanding that the Trump administration waive visa requirements for Bahamian citizens fleeing the devastation.
Both Rubio and Scott sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking the administration to “waive, or otherwise suspend certain visa requirements for affected citizens…who have relatives in the United States with whom they can reside as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives and their country.”
“Bahamians aren’t asking for [Temporary Protected Status,]” Rubio added in another tweet. “They want to expedite [and/or] waive visa requirements for those displaced until it is safe to return.”