119 Bahamian evacuees forced off ferry headed to Port Everglades

PORT EVERGLADES, FLA. (WSVN) - After hundreds of Bahamians attempted to leave their storm-ravaged home on board a ferry headed to Port Everglades, 119 of them were forced off the vessel and left with conflicting reasons as to why.

The evacuees left their destroyed homes in Freeport and waited in line for hours outside the harbor with the documents they were told they needed to board the Balearia headed to Fort Lauderdale, Sunday night.

At one point, security guards locked the doors to the terminal with chains and padlocks as the crowd grew.

Ferry passengers were told they could travel to Fort Lauderdale with their Bahamian passports and a paper from authorities verifying they did not have a criminal record.

But as soon as the boat was about to take off, an announcement came over the loudspeakers.

“All passengers who don’t have U.S. visas, please proceed to disembark,” said a ferry employee.

The ferry crew said they were told by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the last minute that they were not allowed to take the evacuees to the U.S. port if they did not have visas.

“They’re saying that they just got a call from CBP, and CBP told them that everyone that doesn’t have a U.S. visa and who was traveling on police record has to come off,” said Renard Oliver, who was trying to evacuate with his daughters, including an infant.

When asked how he felt, Oliver replied, “At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughters cry.”

More than 100 passengers were asked to disembark, and the ferry departed without these evacuees.

Each passenger bought their ticket for over $100 and were left not knowing what to do or how they would leave the island after hearing the heartbreaking news.

“I think this is terrible. I think they should allow everyone to come into the U.S.,” said another passenger who was attempting to evacuate. “They originally said that you could come without a police record and without a visa and now they’re taking that back. That’s really ridiculous.”

The crew on board the ferry blamed U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but officials with CBP said it was the ferry crew that did not want to take the evacuees.

7News spoke with CBP officials once the ferry docked at Port Everglades, and they said Balearia made the decision to pull the evacuees off the boat. Moreover, CBP officials said, the ferry company did not work with them ahead of time.

“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,” said CBP Acting Port Direction Stephen Silvestri. “I think it was a business decision by Balearia to remove them. They were not ordered off the boat by any government entity.”

A spokesperson for Balearia released a statement Monday evening that read in part, “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 Fort Lauderdale they required prior in-person authorization from the immigration authorities in Nassau. In coordination with U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection, our company is informing all Bahamian residents of the required travel documentation necessary for travel to Fort Lauderdale.”

Florida lawmakers weighed in on the issue on Monday, including U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. They said the confusion needs to be cleared up, and the Bahamian evacuees should be able to come to the U.S.

Scott released a statement that read, “As hundreds of thousands of Bahamians seek refuge or start to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian, we cannot have that kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport.”

CBP officials said the ferry would have had to be docked for hours, as the Bahamians would be brought off one by one to be processed, and the company did not want to wait because it would have slowed their schedule down. They also said on Saturday alone, approximately 1,500 evacuees were processed in West Palm Beach and allowed into the U.S.

CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said that what unfolded at the Freeport terminal was the result of confusion because of so much going on in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

“There’s going to be some confusion, and so what I will say is that’s what it was, so CBP, we are not working and telling the cruise line that you cannot allow anyone without documents,” said Morgan. “That’s just not being done.”

Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump addressed the issue while speaking with reporters outside the White House. He said it’s important to ensure no criminals enter the U.S. from the Bahamas.

“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,” he said.

Speaking with 7News on the phone, Jasmine Cooper, a passenger who was taken off the ferry said the experience was humiliating.

“I must say it was very embarrassing, but I guess this is what we have to go through,” she said. “All we want to do is know how we can get off this island so we can at least rebuild our hometown, but at the same time have power and fresh water.”

Trump said that U.S. agencies are focusing on relocating residents from the hardest-hit areas to parts of the island nation that did not sustain any damage from the storm.

“Large sections, believe it or not, of the Bahamas, were not hit, and what we’re doing is bringing the people to those sections of the Bahamas that have not been hit,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of the [United States Agency for International Development]. We’ve done a lot of work with our Coast Guard, with our FEMA people, who have been phenomenal, so we’ll see what happens.”

On Monday night, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying Bahamians trying to travel to the U.S. after Hurricane Dorian need a travel visa along with their valid passport.

In the additional guidance release, it was stated Bahamian citizens may apply for admission to the U.S. without a visa at one of the CBP Preclearance facilities located in Nassau or Freeport International Airports.

DHS officials also noted CBP Port Directors may use discretion and will consider all exigent circumstances on a case by case basis, in accordance with existing laws and regulations.

The Bahamians are now back on their home island with nothing, struggling to find another way off the island. A 7News crew found that a large portion of the evacuees who were asked to disembark the ferry were mothers with young children.

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