Hundreds of Bahamian citizens desperate to escape the devastation of Hurricane Dorian were ordered to board a ferry to Florida, sparking a dispute between US immigration authorities and the ship's operator.
Crew members aboard the Freeport, Grand Bahama Balearics told US visa-free evacuees that they would have to land because the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) warned “on a last-minute call” that they would not be admitted. in the USA upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale.
Under CBP rules, visa-free passengers are legally admissible for humanitarian reasons, provided they also submit a police report confirming that they have no criminal record.
But those with this documentation were asked to leave Balearia after the passenger manifest was submitted to the US federal agency on Sunday night, according to some crews, because they said the US would not accept them.
The CBP reacted on Monday. Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner, said there was simply "confusion" about people fleeing the Bahamas from coming to the US.
"We will accept anyone for humanitarian reasons who needs to come here," he said in a White House statement, adding that those with serious criminal records were automatically disqualified.
Stephen Silvestri, interim director of CBP in Port Everglades, told a Miami WSVN news reporter who was on board the ferry: “If these people stayed on the boat and arrived, we would have processed, verified and worked on them. our laws. protocols and we did what we had to do to make them easier. "
“I think it was a commercial decision by Balearia to remove them. They were not ordered out of the boat by any government entity. "
The ship's owners, Balearia Caribbean, did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Most passengers spent hours at Freeport's crowded dock on Sunday, trying to secure a seat aboard the 1.000-capable vessel.
Renard Oliver, a Grand Bahama evacue who was trying to get to Florida with his two young daughters, told WSVN: “They are saying they just got a call from CBP and CBP told them that everyone who has not seen an American and was traveling on a police record has to leave.
“At the last minute, it's kind of disappointing. It hurts to see my daughters cry. “
On Saturday, 1.500 evacuates from Grand Bahama arrived in Palm Beach, Florida aboard the Grand Celebration, a ship operated by Paradise Cruise Line. The difference, according to the CBP, was that Paradise had coordinated the trip with the Bahamas government and US authorities in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.
“CBP relies on transportation companies… to commit to ensuring the safety and well-being of anyone devastated by this tragedy and requiring transparent communication and planning for adequate resources to receive any arrival,” a statement said. of the CBP released on Monday.
Since the 5 hurricane hit the northwestern islands of the Bahamas eight days ago with winds of over 200 km / h and a storm of over 6 meters, thousands have been evacuated to Nassau or the USA.
Military transport planes flying from Abaco and Grand Bahama increased the efforts initiated by dozens of boat and private aircraft operators shortly after the storm.
Marco Rubio, US Senator in Florida, backed CBP's position in a tweet on Monday at lunch time, claiming that it seemed that Balearia “didn't coordinate in advance. And decided to leave instead of waiting a few hours to complete the process. "
Rubio visited the hardest-hit islands last week with fellow US Senators Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, former governors of Florida, the trio asking the Trump administration to waive or suspend certain visa requirements for Bahamas citizens to come to the United States. USA.
In a series of tweets, Morgan, CBP's interim commissioner, said visa documentation requirements had not changed. Immigration officials at entry points, he said, have the power to issue "humanitarian or medical parole on a case-by-case basis."