Hurricane Dorian Evacuees Kicked Off Boat Amid Visa Confusion: 'I’m Watching My Daughter Cry,' One Dad Says
All passengers reportedly paid more than $100 for their ticket
Dozens of would-be evacuees seeking refuge from Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in the Bahamas were reportedly forced to leave a ferry meant to take them to Florida as authorities said the boat’s operator failed to make the necessary arrangements ahead of time.
More than 100 people were on board the ship Sunday night in Freeport when a crew member announced over the loudspeaker that anyone without a U.S. visa would have to disembark, local TV station WSVN reports.
“At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing,” Renard Oliver told the outlet as he held his infant daughter. “It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughter cry, but it is what it is.”
All passengers reportedly paid more than $100 for their ticket.
While some observers spoke out about what they called cruel and restrictive immigration rules, federal officials blamed the ferry company itself — as other observers said that, in practice, the visa requirements for Bahamian travelers to the U.S. are not always clear.
A spokesperson for the CBP at Port Everglades in Florida said in a statement to PEOPLE that agency officials were aware of the ship’s intended trip but that the operator, identified in media reports as Baleària Caribbean, had not coordinated with the proper authorities beforehand.
“CBP relies on the transportation companies in both the air and sea environments to be engaged in ensuring the safety and well-being of any individuals that have been devastated by this tragedy and that requires transparent communication and planning for adequate resources to receive any arrivals,” the CBP statement reads.
“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.”
Anyone who enters the U.S. is required to present themselves to a CBP officer for inspection at an official CBP Port of Entry with valid identity and travel documents on hand.
According to CBP, most citizens coming to the U.S. from the Bahamas require a visa. Some people, however, are able to travel without one. Bahamian citizens can apply to get into the U.S. without a visa at pre-clearance facilities in Nassau or Freeport International Airports.
In order to qualify, these travelers must have a valid passport, no criminal record and a police certificate issued within the past six months, among other requirements.
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In its statement, the CBP noted that there have been a number of successful evacuations from the Bahamas into the U.S., including a cruise ship that brought nearly 1,500 Dorian survivors to the Port of Palm Beach, Florida, on Saturday.
CBP spokesman Michael Silva told CNN that all of the people on that ship were properly documented, and that their processing had been coordinated with CBP ahead of time.
WSVN reported that Balearia crew members said they had been told that the evacuees would be accepted with just a passport and a copy of a police record.
“We’re there to facilitate and accommodate that process in an orderly fashion, according to regulation and protocol. However, Balearia did not do that,” Silva told CNN. “We asked them to coordinate ahead of time. They did not do that.”
Balearia did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment but later apologized for the “hardship and inconvenience,” saying in a statement according to CNN, “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.”
CBP Acting Port Director Stephen Silvestri separately stressed that the decision to tell the boat passengers to leave was made by the ferry company itself, not the government, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
Multiple lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, have since called for visa requirements to be waved for people coming from the Bahamas in order to find refuge in the U.S., the Sun-Sentinel reports.
Citizens in parts of the Bahamas have been living with limited food, water and power since Dorian made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane last weekend.
Health Minister Duane Sands listed the death toll at 44, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
The hurricane destroyed homes, businesses and other buildings across the island, though Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said at a news conference Wednesday that flooding had receded in Freeport and Grand Bahama.
He also noted that a “significant” number of people remained in shelters.
Bloomberg reported last week that Dorian could cost the Bahamas an estimated $7 billion in damages.