As video spread of more than a hundred Hurricane Dorian evacuees from the Bahamas being told they could not escape the damage by coming to the United States on September 9, 2019 if they did not have a visa, immigration officials blamed a local ferry company — while U.S. President Donald Trump cast aspersions onto the refugees.
“You can imagine any type of natural disaster like this where you have this huge disaster, a lot of resources going on and responding, there’s going to be some confusion,” said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Morgan’s remarks came a day after the footage began to spread; the video shows a speaker on a ferry operated by Balearia Caribbean telling people to get off the ship if they did not have a visa. Ferry employees told WSVN-TV that Customs officials first told them they could bring passengers without visas, but later said otherwise.
The order ran counter to existing policy allowing travelers from the Bahamas into the U.S. if they presented a passport and proof that they had no criminal record. About 4,800 people have reportedly been evacuated from Abacos and Grand Bahamas, the two islands hit hardest by the hurricane. The Category 5 storm has already been listed as the cause of 45 deaths, and around 70,000 people have lost their homes because of it.
CBP officials later said that Balearia failed to coordinate with both American and Bahamian authorities regarding the planned trip from Freeport to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. But when asked about the incident, Trump tried to link the issue with immigration as a whole, using remarks reminiscent of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has characterized his presidency.
“We have to be very careful. Everybody needs totally proper documentation. Because look, the Bahamas has some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas who weren’t supposed to be there,” he told reporters:
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.
Morgan also denied the accusation that CBP had engineered the incident, saying, “We are not working and telling a cruise line that you cannot allow anyone without documents. That’s just not being done. We will accept anyone on humanitarian reasons that’s going to come here, we’re going to process them.”
We contacted CBP asking the agency how the coordination process in a case involving a ferry company, and how much notice the agency would require from the company. CBP has yet to respond. A separate cruise ship carrying 1,500 passengers to Palm Beach, Florida was allowed to enter the United States without incident.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has called for the U.S. to lift certain visa requirements for Bahamian refugees. Likewise, more than 20 activist groups delivered a letter to the Bahamian consulate in Miami asking that country’s government to suspend immigration enforcement in the aftermath of the hurricane.