Fact-check: Bahamas evacuees without visas ordered off US-bound ferry

Hurricane Dorian destroyed the homes of about 70,000 people in the Bahamas, and the death toll continues to climb. In the aftermath, some Bahamians are trying to come to the United States and in particular Florida, where about 20,000 people have Bahamian ancestry.

But when more than 100 were kicked off a boat headed to South Florida, confusion reigned about the visa rules for people leaving the Bahamas.

The U.S. government has said it was not responsible for what happened. But U.S. officials have given conflicting messages about the required documentation Bahamians need. 

When a reporter asked President Donald Trump to weigh in on whether people fleeing the Bahamas should get Temporary Protected Status, he didn’t answer the question directly.

"We have to be very careful. Everybody needs totally proper documentation. The Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there," Trump said Sept. 9. "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."

Here’s what we know so far about what happened on the boat, the documentation rules for entering the United States from the Bahamas, and further plans by the Trump administration.

What happened on the boat?

People without visas on the boat were kicked off by the boat company.

On Sept. 8, hundreds of passengers at Freeport Harbour boarded a Fort Lauderdale-bound ferry operated by Balearia Caribbean, a Spanish company. Passengers thought that they didn’t need a visa because other Bahamians had left for the United States without visas. (It wasn’t possible to fly since Dorian had destroyed the airport.)

Brian Entin, a TV reporter for Miami's WSVN who was on the boat, tweeted that the ferry crew announced that passengers without visas had to get off. He tweeted: 

"A little more from crew on the ferry. They say they were told it was ok to accept Bahamian evacuees with passport and copy of police record. They boarded boat. Then when they sent manifest to US Customs and Border Patrol — they were told those without visas would not be accepted."

Balearia said 119 passengers got off the boat.

Entin reported that ferry employees blamed Customs and Border Protection, but the agency blamed the ferry company for not working with them ahead of time.

Immigration officials told WSVN that the company did not fulfill requirements to coordinate with the U.S. government. The passengers were not ordered off the ferry by any U.S. government entity, Stephen Silvestri, an acting port director for Customs and Border Protection, told WSVN. If the passengers had a passport and a clean record, Customs and Border Protection would have vetted them to determine their admissibility, he said.

Why did the ferry company remove passengers?

Balearia apologized for the "hardship and inconvenience" experienced by the passengers who stayed behind.

"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," Balearia said in a statement.

The company did not respond to follow-up questions on the chronology of events and its communication with Customs and Border Protection.

Do people in the Bahamas need a visa to come to the United States?

There’s been mixed messaging about this from the Trump administration.

Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, during a Sept. 9 press briefing said that if someone’s life was in jeopardy in the Bahamas and wanted to come to the United States, "you are going to be allowed to come to the United States, right, whether you have travel documents or not." But the United States is still vetting individuals and those deemed inadmissible will be transferred over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for removal.

Later in the day, the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees Morgan’s agency) gave a less lenient directive.

"The bottom line is that all travelers must possess government-issued identity documents, such as passports," the statement said. "All travelers who arrive directly to a U.S. Port of Entry by air or sea must possess a U.S. visitor’s visa."

Bahamians coming by ship must have a valid passport and a valid travel visa, the department added. Some Bahamians who plan to fly to the United States may apply for admission without a visa at Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facilities in Nassau or Freeport international airports. They must meet specific requirements.

However, the Homeland Security statement also said that Customs and Border Protection Port Directors "may use discretion and will consider all exigent circumstances on a case by case basis, in accordance with existing laws and regulations."

Have other Bahamians arrived by ship before the Balearia event?

Yes. Customs and Border Protection said it processed the "first mass evacuations" from the Bahamas on Sept. 7 with the arrival to Palm Beach County of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration

The immigration agency said it processed 1,435 people aboard Grand Celebration: 539 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, 857 Bahamians, and 39 people of other nationalities.

The cruise line said it transported 1,100 evacuees: 80% had the proper documentation — visa and passport — while the others had a police report, passport, and birth certificate. (Customs and Border Protection’s higher passenger tally might include others such as first responders and volunteers.)

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said it connected directly with Customs and Border Protection prior to departing Freeport and spent "nearly a full day going through three layers of vetting to ensure passengers had the correct documentation."

What is Temporary Protected Status and is it available for Bahamians?

Temporary Protected Status is a temporary benefit granted to nationals of foreign countries with unsafe conditions that prevent their return. (For example, there is a Temporary Protected Status designation for Syria, given the country’s ongoing armed conflict; Haiti was also designated for Temporary Protected Status after a 2010 earthquake devastated the country.)

Beneficiaries must meet specific eligibility requirements. Individuals granted Temporary Protected Status cannot be deported from the United States during that period. They can get a work permit, and may be allowed to travel outside of the country.

Morgan, the acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said there had not been an official designation of Temporary Protected Status for the Bahamas and that the issue was still up for discussion.