Hundreds of Bahamians who survived Hurricane Dorian boarded a Florida-bound ferry from Freeport on Sunday, only to find out they wouldn’t be allowed into the U.S. after all because they didn’t have visas.
“Please, all passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” a crew member said over the boat’s intercom.
According to WSVN reporter Brian Entin, who was on the more than two-hour ferry ride from Freeport to Fort Lauderdale, the evacuees had originally been told they’d be able to enter the U.S. with just their Bahamian passports and a printout of their police record. But when the ferry docked in Florida, only those with U.S. visas were allowed in — even though passengers on other boats were allowed to enter the U.S. without them. On Saturday, nearly 1,500 evacuees, many of whom didn’t have visas, fled to Palm Beach on a cruise ship operated by the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.
U.S. officials are blaming the discrepancy between the two ferries’ policies on Balearia Caribbean, the ferry company that coordinated the ill-fated Sunday evacuation. “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,” Customs and Border Protection told the Washington Post.
In a statement to VICE News, CBP emphasized its willingness to work with cruise operators and other companies evacuating refugees from the Bahamas. “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, Florida, aboard a cruise ship on Saturday and were processed without incident,” a CBP spokesperson said of the ship that left on Saturday.
But the Balearia ferry crew was under the impression that passengers could enter the U.S. with just a passport and a copy of their police record, the documents required by the visa waiver program between the U.S. and the Bahamas, WSVN reports.
Under the program, Bahamian citizens can fly to the U.S. without a visa if they are pre-cleared in Nassau or Freeport, have a valid Bahamian passport, and have no criminal record.
“Bahamians whose individual hurricane plans include travel to the United States should consider applying for U.S. visas well in advance,” CBP’s website suggests. But the chaos on Sunday suggests that requirement wasn’t made clear to either the ferry operators or the people trying to flee the island that day.
Thousands of Bahamians are trying to flee the country in the wake of the devastating Category 5 storm, which tore through Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands last week destroying everything in its wake. The hurricane killed at least 30 people, according to the official death toll, but officials sent 200 body bags to Great Abaco on Thursday and they expect the number to climb further.
Cover: Passengers board the Balearia Caribbean ferry that departs from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, to Freeport, a city in the Grand Bahama carrying relief aid to for those effected by the damaged caused by Hurricane Dorian. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)