Bahamians booted off Florida-bound evacuation ferry. Feds are blaming ferry company

U.S. immigration officials are blaming a private ferry company for booting more than one hundred Bahamians off a Florida-bound ferry, saying the company’s decision was about its own business interests and had nothing to do with U.S. immigration rules.

Late Sunday night, Bahamian evacuees fleeing the destruction of Hurricane Dorian at the port in Freeport were abruptly kicked off a Balearia Caribbean ferry scheduled to sail to Fort Lauderdale that evening. Crew members ordered 119 people to get off after checking for U.S. visas just minutes before departure.

“Their decision to make all those people get off board had nothing to do with CBP,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Silva, based in South Florida, told the Miami Herald. “The company knew the U.S. would have welcomed all of them even if they didn’t have the documentation. The ferry would have just had to just wait at Port Everglades for about 12 hours for every passenger to be processed and that didn’t make good business sense for them. So they shifted the blame on CBP.”

Monday night, Balearia Caribbean issued an emailed statement: “We regret and apologize for the hardship and inconvenience experienced by the passengers who are residents from Grand Bahama Island who could not be transported Sunday, Sept. 8. 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.”

One-way tickets from Grand Bahama to Fort Lauderdale cost around $150. It’s unclear if the booted passengers got refunds.

CBP officials spent all day Monday trying to clarify that the decision to order the Bahamians off the ferry was not CBP’s, but Balearia’s. Rachel Torres, a D.C.-based spokesperson for CBP, said the Bahamians who were not allowed to travel did not have the proper documentation, which led the company to kick them off.

“If they didn’t have IDs, they would have to go to a very lengthy process” in the U.S., she said. “That would have kept the boat from going back to pick up passengers, and the company didn’t want that. So they told them to get off.”

So what is the proper documentation?

If traveling by sea or private aircraft, Bahamian citizens are required to have a valid and unexpired passport and a visa from the U.S. State Department. Bahamians without a U.S. visa can depart from “pre-clearance” facilities in Nassau or Freeport to travel with just their passports and proof of a clean criminal record through a certificate issued by Bahamian police.

U.S. and Bahamian government officials have been dispatched to those locations in order to expedite the process, CBP said.

On Monday, the Bahamas’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that storm evacuees who needed to replace their passports should visit the passport office in New Providence, the island where the Bahamas’ capital, Nassau, is located. The passport office on the island of Grand Bahama was closed. Fees to expedite passport renewals and replacements would be waived for individuals from the storm-ravaged areas.

Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said the U.S. can issue humanitarian or medical parole for travelers on a case-by-case basis.

“So there’s just some confusion there,” he said Monday. “We will accept anyone on humanitarian reasons that needs to come here. We’re going to process them expeditiously. Again, though, if they are deemed to be inadmissible and they have a long criminal history where they’ve been denied entry into the United States previously, we’re not going to allow that person to enter the United States to roam freely. We’re going to process them like they normally would.”

On Monday, Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio called on the agency to clarify what documents Bahamians need to travel to the U.S. Scott and Rubio’s request to President Donald Trump to waive visa requirements for Bahamians is still pending.

“As hundreds of thousands of Bahamians seek refuge or start to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian, we cannot have the kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport,” said Scott. “Senator Rubio and I continue to urge President Trump to waive some visa requirements for those in the Bahamas that have family in the United States. But until that happens, there needs to be clarity on the current rules.”

Evacuees wait for transportation to leave Marsh Harbour Port on Abaco Island on Saturday, September 7, 2019. Al Diaz

For the past few days, nearly 1,500 Hurricane Dorian survivors successfully arrived at the Port of Palm Beach aboard ferry and cruise ships from areas of the Bahamas devastated by Hurricane Dorian, the most powerful hurricane on record to hit the country. CBP said the companies coordinated with Bahamian and U.S. authorities, and the evacuees were processed without incident.

“What that means is that local, state and federal resources, as well as the nonprofits, were lined up ready to offer shelter and medical services to the evacuees, ” Silva said. “Everyone was on the same page. That’s not what happened with the ferry.”

During a gaggle outside the White House Monday, Trump said everyone leaving the Bahamas for the U.S. must have proper documentation because the Bahamas has had “tremendous problems” with illegal immigration.

“Everybody needs totally proper documentation because, look, the Bahamas has some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there,” Trump said. “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.

“We are going to be very, very strong.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Alex Daugherty and Michael Wilner contributed to this story.

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.