Dozens of weary Bahamas residents hoping to seek refuge in the United States from the storm-ravaged islands were kicked off a ferry headed for Florida on Sunday night, after an announcement on board that anyone without a valid visa would “have problems” at the American port of entry.
Videos of the incident, which occurred after an apparent failure of communication between the company operating the ferry and United States authorities, spread rapidly on social media. Frustrated passengers were lamenting that their hopes of getting away from Hurricane Dorian’s devastation had been suddenly dashed.
“At the last minute like this,” said one passenger, Renard Oliver, who held onto a toddler as he spoke to a reporter with the Miami television station WSVN. “It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughters cry, but it is what it is.”
United States authorities issued conflicting statements about the matter in a space of a few hours on Monday, adding to the confusion and frustration among hurricane survivors.
Initially, Customs and Border Protection officials said that they would have allowed the passengers without visas into the United States as long as they had valid passports, documentation of a clean criminal record and prior approval for entry by the United States embassy in the Bahamas. Later, though, a spokeswoman for the agency said that only travelers arriving by air, not by sea, were eligible to enter without visas.
“You can imagine that any kind of natural disaster like this, where you have this huge disaster, a lot of resources going on, there’s going to be some confusion,” Mark Morgan, the agency’s acting commissioner, told reporters during a briefing at the White House.
But he then appeared to contradict, yet again, the latest official statement from the agency’s communications office, as well as the experience of passengers on the ferry: “We’re not telling the cruise line you cannot allow anyone without documents,” he said. “That’s just not being done.”
Diane Sabatino, the head of the border agency’s Miami office, who is coordinating the response to the hurricane, said that the United States was handling the situation on a case-by-case basis during the crisis.