Hurricane Dorian may not have hit the U.S. East Coast as hard as many feared, but it decimated the Bahamas, leaving tens of thousands homeless. On Sunday, over 100 of the displaced were instructed to disembark a rescue ferry bound for Florida because they didn’t possess U.S. visas. Customs and Border Protection has been unable to offer an adequate explanation for why this happened, as visas are not required for Bahamians traveling to the U.S.
When asked about the incident on Monday, President Trump said the U.S. needs to be careful about allowing Bahamians into the country following Hurricane Dorian. “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be [in the Bahamas],” he said, adding that among the refugees could be “very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very very bad drug dealers.”
It’s unclear what role the Trump administration played in the refugees’ removal from the ferry.
Big problems on the ferry from Freeport to Florida — announcement just made that any Bahamian without a visa must now get off. This is not normal. Nornally Bahamians can travel to USA with passport and a printout of their police record. This is a mess. pic.twitter.com/DESUm2qBGE
— Brian Entin (@BrianEntin) September 8, 2019
CBP officials in Florida blamed the ferry company, Balearia. “If they worked with us, we would have been there to facilitate that process,” an official told Entin. “We would have made sure that everyone was properly documented. … Why they said that, I don’t know. It’s really heartbreaking for them to say that to these people who have suffered beyond comprehension.”
But members of the ferry’s crew told Entin that CBP told Balearia that passengers without visas would not be admitted to the United States. Balearia did not immediately return a request for comment. An official statement from CBP did not offer specifics about what the agency communicated to Balearia, stating vaguely that “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.”
— CBP Florida (@CBPFlorida) September 9, 2019
A CBP spokesperson told Rolling Stone on Monday that it did not direct Balearia to instruct passengers without visas to disembark, and that there has been no policy change in what is required for Bahamians to travel to the United States. CBP’s website indicates Bahamians need only a valid Bahamian passport and a clean criminal record to enter the U.S. — not a visa — and that this applies to both air and sea. But after stipulating specifically that a visa is not required, the site notes, in bold letters, that “Bahamians whose individual hurricane plans include travel to the United States should consider applying for U.S. visas well in advance.” How displaced Bahamians were supposed to know to obtain visas “well in advance” of the unfolding disaster is unclear.
Then, in another version of the story, a CBP spokesperson told Newsweek on Monday that the agency had informed Balearia it needed to transport evacuees to Nassau in order to obtain visas before continuing to the United States. A different CBP spokesperson later told Rolling Stone that this was correct and that operators were being advised to coordinate with the U.S. and Bahamian governments. When it was pointed out to the spokesperson that visas were not required, the spokesperson clarified that they would only need to stop in Nassau to apply for admission, confirming that visas were not necessary.
Got it? No? We don’t, either.
Meanwhile, Bahamians are suffering. The severity of the damage the islands incurred from Hurricane Dorian is difficult to conceptualize. Mark Green, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said after touring some of the most devastated regions of the Bahamas that it was “almost as though nuclear bombs were dropped on them.” The death toll is currently at 45, but as was the case in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017, the number is likely to rise significantly. Countless people are missing, and around 70,000 have been left homeless, not including those who are now living in damaged homes.
Though it’s unclear what exactly happened on the Balearia ferry Sunday night, the Trump administration hasn’t exactly exuded compassion when it comes to the plight of refugees. In 2018 Trump described nearby Haiti, which was rocked by an earthquake in 2010, as a “shithole country” while arguing that the government should prevent “more Haitians” from coming to the United States. Staying on brand, the Trump administration is now considering a “drastic” cut to the number of refugees the U.S. accepts, according to the New York Times.
Former congressman and 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke responded to the news that displaced Bahamians had been removed from the ferry by criticizing the Trump administration. “This is the height of cruelty — denying help to those who need it most,” wrote O’Rourke. “This administration has said the words on the Statue of Liberty should be rewritten, and in their actions, they are already changing who we are as a country. It’s on us to prove we’re better than this.”
Fellow presidential candidate Tom Steyer agreed with O’Rourke, although he didn’t call out the Trump administration specifically. “Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, and now we are turning away the people who most need our help,” he wrote. “This isn’t what America is supposed to stand for.”
But the most appropriate response may have come from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?” he tweeted.