Dozens of Bahamians trying to evacuate from the hurricane-wrecked islands were told to get off a ferry headed towards Florida last weekend, and were told that was because they did not have U.S. visas. In response, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said on Monday afternoon at a White House press briefing that they would grant entry into the U.S. to anyone from the Bahamas on “humanitarian reasons.”
“We will accept anyone on humanitarian reasons that needs to come here,” said Mark Morgan, Acting Commissioner of CBP on the subject of Bahamians seeking refuge from the islands hit by Hurricane Dorian. “We’re not (…) telling a cruise line that you cannot allow anyone without documents,” he added. “That’s just not being done. There’s just some confusion there.”
Morgan said that, in Dorian’s aftermath, the agency has already processed people from the Bahamas who have travel documents and those who do not — but added that individuals still need to be vetted “to make sure we’re not letting dangerous people in.” Anyone deemed “inadmissible” would not be returned to the Bahamas but turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would detain them appropriately, Morgan said.
The Department of Homeland Security later issued additional guidance on visa requirements for Bahamians: “Bahamians arriving to the United States by vessel must be in possession of a valid passport AND travel visa,” the department said. “The bottom line is that all travelers must possess government-issued identity documents, such as passports. All travelers who arrive directly to a U.S. Port of Entry by air or sea must possess a U.S. visitor’s visa.”
Last week, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott wrote an open letter to Trump asking the president’s administration to “waive, or otherwise suspend, certain visa requirements” for Bahamian citizens who have relatives in the U.S. as the country recovered from Hurricane Dorian. Rubio also noted that many lost — or lost access to — their identification and other relevant documents during the hurricane.
DHS did not respond immediately to a request for clarification from TIME about how the new guidance will be implemented.
Morgan had also tweeted on Sunday that evacuees from the Bahamas who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, as well as those with proper documentation to enter the U.S. are able to enter as usual. “No visa document requirements have changed,” Morgan said.
Just over a week ago, Hurricane Dorian had slammed and stalled over the Bahamas, killing more than 40 people and rendering large swaths of land uninhabitable. The 185 mph winds and rapid flooding destroyed houses, drowned people and animals and left entire neighborhoods submerged in water.
After passengers had boarded the ferry on Sunday, which was headed from Freeport to Fort Lauderdale Fla., and run by the Spanish shipping company Balearia Caribbean, an announcement blared through the speakers. “Please, all passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” a crew member said in a video captured by a journalist with WSVN 7 News in Miami. Crew members then reportedly ordered 103 people to get off the boat just minutes before departure, the Miami Herald reported.
Balearia apologized Monday to passengers who were told to disembark the ferry, the Associated Press reported. Spokeswoman Pilar Boix said in a statement that the ferry allowed passengers onto the ferry thinking they did not need visas. “The shipping company later received indications that in order to travel to the U.S., the passengers would need pre-clearance authorization in person at the immigration offices in Nassau,” Boix told the AP in an email. (Balearia did not respond to emails and a phone call requesting comment on Monday.)
CBP acknowledged in a statement to TIME that it 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.”
Travel between Florida and the Bahamas is nothing out of the ordinary, Christine Vassallo-Oby, a clinical assistant professor at the Department of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino studies at the University of Albany, tells TIME. It is a “commonplace” journey largely because of the geographical proximity between the two regions, Vassallo-Oby says. “There’s a casino in Nassau that many Floridians travel to on a regular basis.” The boat ride takes around two hours.
“This story is not new. We keep going through the same routine of natural disasters and poor or low quality relief efforts,” Vassallo-Oby says, noting the influx of people from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria hit the islands in 2017. “It’s contradictory” for the U.S. to want to reap the benefits of trade and tourism with the Bahamas but also “turn our backs on everyday Bahamians who work in these same places,” she adds.
Bahamian citizens who meet the following requirements can typically apply for admission to the U.S. without a visa, according to CBP policy.
- Be in possession of a valid, unexpired Bahamian passport and a police certificate issued within the past six months
- No criminal record or any legal ineligibility or inadmissibility as defined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
- Be traveling for business or pleasure where the intention is to only stay for a short duration
“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,” the CBP spokesperson said.
A CBP officer told WSVN 7 News that the call to remove the Bahamians was a “business decision” made by Balearia and that “they were not ordered off the boat by any U.S. government entity.”
“If these folks did stay on the boat we would have processed them and worked within our laws and protocols and done what we had to do to facilitate them,” the officer said.
During a press conference on Monday, President Donald Trump raised the issue of “very bad gang members” and “drug dealers” when explaining why the U.S. should be careful when processing Bahamians seeking refuge post-Dorian. Trump has made similar statements about Mexican immigrants in the past, including in the speech he used to launch his presidential campaign in 2015.
On Monday, Rubio tweeted that Trump’s statement is “not new policy” and noted that “after a hurricane some victims may have lost their passports or other identification.”
Trump had also tweeted last week that he would appreciate the efforts of any cruise ship companies to help those in the badly hit sections of the Bahamas.