Boats from South Florida arrive at Grand Bahama on Saturday carrying donated food, tents, tools and generators for survivors of Hurricane Dorian. Photo by Paul Brinkmann/UPI
Sept. 9 (UPI) -- A group of people who survived Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas last week were removed from an evacuation ship late Sunday because they didn't have a valid visa to enter the United States, government officials said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Monday the ferry operator removed the evacuees and did not coordinate ahead of time with U.S. officials.
The ferry was ready to travel from Freeport in Grand Bahama to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when the Bahamian residents without a visa were ordered off the ship. A witness said about 130 people -- who'd bought tickets for passage and waited in line for hours waiting to board the ferry -- were left behind.
"They're saying 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," Renard Oliver, who was among those who left the ship, told WSVN-TV in Fort Lauderdale. "At the last minute like this, it's kind of disappointing. It's hurting because [I'm] watching my daughters cry."
CBP official Stephen Silvestri said U.S. authorities would have processed the evacuees and allowed them to enter without visas, adding that he'd done it for other boats with Bahamian refugees.
"We would have processed them, we would have done vetting and, you know, we would have done everything we needed to do within the U.S. laws and regulations to determine their admissibility and process them accordingly," Silvestri said.
"We're there to facilitate and accommodate that process in an orderly fashion, according to regulation and protocol. However, [the ferry operator] did not do that," CBP spokesman Michael Silva said. "We asked them to coordinate ahead of time. They did not that do that."
Florida Sen. Rick Scott said U.S. immigration laws should not be an impediment to keep out victims of a natural disaster like Hurricane Dorian, which battered the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm a week ago. At least 45 people died and thousands are missing.
"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," Scott said.
Sunday, the cruise ship Grand Celebration delivered 1,500 refugees to the Port of Palm Beach in Florida, after coordinating with the U.S. and Bahamian governments.