In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful storm to ever hit the Bahamas, thousands of people have been evacuated from the areas most affected. Many have gone to Nassau and more than 1,500 have come to the nearby United States, bypassing the visa process because they are survivors of a natural disaster. But on Sunday (September 8), on a ferry headed from Freeport, Bahamas, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, a crew member announced: “Please, all passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark.”
As a result, 119 people left the ferry, despite having paid for tickets under the impression that they would be allowed to travel to Florida. “At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughter cry, but it is what it is,” Renard Oliver, who was holding his infant daughter, told Brian Entin, a reporter for Miami television station WSVN.
Entin, who was aboard the Balearia ferry, posted a video of the announcement on Twitter that quickly went viral:
Another announcement just made ordering any Bahamian without a US visa to disembark ferry — not allowed to evacuate. They were told before boarding it was ok with Bahamian passport and clean polce record. Something has now changed. pic.twitter.com/m7CnZxoiMM
— Brian Entin (@BrianEntin) September 9, 2019
By the next day (September 9), it was clear there were unanswered questions—and finger pointing—around why the passengers weren’t allowed to evacuate. Per The Washington Post:
The incident, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] 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.”
Balearia Caribbean released a statement apologizing for the “hardship and inconvenience” it caused the 119 passengers, saying, “We boarded these passengers with the understanding that they could travel to the United States without visas, only to later having been advised that in order to travel to Ft. Lauderdale they required prior in-person authorization from the immigration authorities in Nassau.”
A CBP spokesperson reportedly told WSVN that the change in requirements was because Balearia did not properly coordinate the evacuation efforts with the U.S. embassy, the Bahamian government and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Although his administration stressed that people from the island would be able to enter the U.S., President Donald Trump was less welcoming. “We have to be very careful. Everybody needs totally proper documentation because, look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there,” he said, perhaps referring to a sizable Haitian community that lives there. “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 some very bad gang members, and some very, very bad drug dealers. So, we’re going to be very strong on that.”
Twitter users called him out for the rhetoric:
He needs to stop insulting our intelligence and just say what he wants to say — it’s because they’re black. https://t.co/HWiM9hjglp
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 9, 2019
Because they’re Black, right? https://t.co/68jtmtxcnd
— Soledad O’Brien (@soledadobrien) September 9, 2019
Dorian made landfall as a Category 5 storm in the Bahamas on September 1, targeting Abaco and Grand Bahama islands. The official count of the dead is 50, but it is expected to rise as rescue efforts continue. Hundreds are missing, about 70,000 have lost their homes and Abaco is uninhabitable, according to CNN.