Hundreds of Hurricane Dorian survivors crowded into a ferry anchored in Freeport, Bahamas on Sunday evening, after days on the sweltering islands with limited food, water and power. Just 2½ hours across the ocean, safety and relief waited in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Then, an announcement blared from the boat's intercom speakers.
"Please, all passengers that don't have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark," a crew member barked in video captured on board.
Since Dorian devastated the islands earlier this month, killing at least 44, hundreds of other refugees have reportedly come to the U.S. after going through a screening process with only a passport and proof of a clean criminal record. The more than 100 refugees forced to disembark Sunday night were baffled at to why they had been turned away.
"At the last minute like this, it's kind of disappointing," Renard Oliver, who held his infant daughter, told Brian Entin, a reporter for Miami TV station WSVN. "It's hurtful because I'm watching my daughter cry, but it is what it is."
Hundreds like Renard Oliver and his baby now have to get off the ferry from Freeport, Bahamas to Florida. He was trying to evacuate — told he could leave with Bahamian passport and police record like normal but then ferry crew says US Goverment called and changed plan last minute pic.twitter.com/vhBkSgBlKF— Brian Entin (@BrianEntin) September 8, 2019
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, however, says no rules have changed and laid the blame on the ferry operator, identified by local reporters as Balearia Caribbean, for not properly coordinating with government officials. Balearia Caribbean did not immediately return a request for comment.
"CBP 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 The Bahamas," the agency said in a statement shared with The Washington Post late on Sunday.
A CBP official in Florida told WSVN that it was a "business decision" by Balearia to remove the refugees without visas.
"If those folks did stay on the boat and arrived, we would have processed them, vetted them and worked within our laws and protocols and done what we had to do to facilitate them," a CBP spokesman said. "They were not ordered off the boat by any U.S. government entity."
Just interviewed @CBPFlorida when we got off ferry in FL. They say they would have accepted and processed the Bahamians, and blame the ferry company Balearia. CBP says they tried to coordinate with Balearia but company "made a business decision" to take the evacuees off the boat. pic.twitter.com/ONkgdcJvS3— Brian Entin (@BrianEntin) September 9, 2019
On Saturday, nearly 1,500 refugees traveled to the U.S. on another cruise ship, reportedly without requiring visas. Entin reported that the crew on the Sunday ferry were told the same rules were in effect before being rebuffed by CBP.
The refugees' plight comes after bipartisan calls to waive all visa requirements for Bahamas survivors. On Wednesday, Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott wrote an open letter to President Donald Trump urging him to allow in refugees with family in the United States. Eighteen other Florida lawmakers made a similar appeal.
"Incoming images and media reports indicate that thousands of homes have been destroyed and the basic infrastructure of many communities simply no longer exists," the senators wrote. "[P]erhaps one of the most basic yet meaningful steps our government can take immediately is to ensure that those who have lost everything, including family members in some instances, are provided the opportunity for shelter and reunification with family in the United States."
Just hours before the confusion on Sunday's ferry, CBP's acting commissioner emphasized that U.S. authorities would be expecting "proper documentation" from those fleeing the hurricane's destruction.
"Those evacuating from the Bahamas who are U.S. citizens, Lawful Permanent Residents, and those with proper documentation to enter the U.S. are being processed at U.S. Ports of Entry," CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan wrote on Twitter. "No visa document requirements have changed."
Thousands have already fled the islands after Dorian tore away roofs, flooded entire neighborhoods and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Most have gone to Florida, which has close historical ties to the Bahamas.
But many survivors seeking respite in Freeport on Sunday did not find it. Hundreds struggled to buy tickets on outgoing ferries and flights. Eventually, workers at the Freeport Harbour locked the terminal doors after all of the seats on the Sunday evening ferry had been sold. Many people continued to wait outside.
People waited in line for hours to buy tickets and board the evening Balearia Caribbean ferry. Their homes had been flooded, power cut off, water contaminated. The boat to Fort Lauderdale promised to carry them to family and friends waiting to provide support.
But after the announcement demanding visas, a long line of refugees slowly filed off the boat.
"This is terrible," one woman who stayed on the ferry told WSVN as the ferry left the harbor.
Under existing U.S. policy, Bahamians can bypass the visa process by providing a passport, proof of a clean criminal record and going through a pre-screening conducted by CBP in Freeport and Nassau. On Saturday, a cruise ship called the Grand Celebration boarded nearly 1,500 refugees and brought them to Palm Beach, Florida, without requiring passengers to show U.S. visas, according to media reports.
As anger and confusion mounted on Sunday, CBP cited the Grand Celebration's successful arrival as proof that the U.S. isn't blocking refugees from the island.
"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, Florida, aboard a cruise ship on Saturday and were processed without incident," a CBP spokesman said in a statement.
In that statement, CBP emphasized that Grand Celebration worked with officials in both nations before the voyage.
"The Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line coordinated their evacuation mission with U.S. and Bahamian government officials before departing The Bahamas, and coordinated with CBP prior to the arrival of the C/S Grand Celebration," the federal agency said. "All of the evacuees possessed valid travel documents."
CBP said on Sunday that the U.S. Embassy in Nassau is open for emergency visa appointments. The agency also requested all refugees present themselves at a U.S. port of entry so that their admission can be reported to Bahamian authorities searching for missing residents in Abaco and Grand Bahama.
In the Bahamas, tens of thousands are still without homes, electricity or clean water. Mark Green, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told The Post it looked like the islands had been "hit by a nuclear bomb." Bahamian officials warned that the death toll on the islands is likely to rise significantly as authorities continue to survey the destruction.
PHOTOS: SCENES FROM DORIAN'S PATH
50 photos that capture the devastation from Hurricane Dorian: