The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency's Florida office has said it was not responsible for forcing dozens of Bahamians fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Dorian to disembark from a rescue ferry headed to the Sunshine State because they did not have U.S. visas.
In an interview with Newsweek early on Monday morning, CBP Florida spokesperson Michael Silva said he was left heartbroken after hearing that more than 100 people fleeing the Bahamas were left stranded after being told to get off a Baleària Carribean ferry because they did not have the proper documentation.
"It breaks my heart because it's like when you raise somebody's hopes and then you pop the balloon... That, in my opinion, is what Baleària did," Silva said. "It raised the expectations of these poor people who have been through an unimaginable situation with the hurricane...They raised their expectations only to then leave them terribly disappointed."
Hurricane Dorian has, so far, displaced tens of thousands of people and left at least 43 people dead, with the death toll expected to rise.
Silva said his office had informed the ferry company that it would need to transport evacuees fleeing the natural disaster to Nassau before heading to Florida, so that they could obtain visas to enter the U.S.
Instead, he said, Baleària forced dozens of the evacuees who had hoped to seek refuge in Florida off the ferry, leaving them stranded in the Bahamas.
Silva said that while CBP has stressed that any shipping companies or airlines planning to assist Bahamians fleeing the natural disaster ensure that evacuees have obtained proper documentation first, the agency would have processed the dozens of people who were left behind had they been able to make their way to a U.S. port.
"We would have definitely worked with this transportation company or any other transportation company to...facilitate this process," Silva said. "CBP is not denying or discouraging evacuation efforts and we empathize with the plight of the Bahamian people."
While Silva said that he could not issue a "blanket statement" on whether all Bahamians fleeing the natural disaster that rocked the archipelago this past week would have been allowed entry into the U.S., he said that CBP Florida is doing everything it can to support those who do arrive at the state's ports of entry.
On Saturday, he said, CBP Florida assisted more than 1,200 Hurricane Dorian survivors who arrived at the Port of Palm Beach, Florida, on the Grand Celebration cruise ship, without incident.
"They had coordinated with CBP at least a couple of days before, so we were able to work with them to make sure that everyone was properly documented," he said. He added: "We even brought out additional personnel officers from Miami to assist with the processing and we were able to coordinate with the state and non-profit organizations to have them there to help provide shelter and any other sort of assistance from medical guidance to spiritual and psychological support...You name it."
However, according to Silva, not only did Baleària give CBP little notice of its plans to transport Bahamians to Florida, but it also charged passengers who were allowed to board the ferry high rates. This is in contrast to the Grand Celebration, which Silva said provided passage for free.
"I believe they were charging about $150, which is not inexpensive because I think airfare is about the same," he said. "It was a for-profit cruise. It wasn't a humanitarian mission."
Baleària has not immediately responded to a request for comment from Newsweek about the incident.
Brian Entin, an investigative reporter in Miami for WSVN Channel 7 News was aboard the Baleària cruise ship, live-tweeted the situation as it unfolded.
According to Entin, dozens of people, including children and their parents, were left "stuck on the island" while Bahamians who were allowed to stay onboard the Baleària ferry were left "in shock" by the shipping company's decision.
"No one understands why the rule was changed at the last minute," Entin said.
"I think this is terrible. I think they should allow everyone to come into the U.S.," one woman tells Entin in a video captured on board. "That's really ridiculous. That's awful."
Silva said that while CBP "will continue to support evacuation efforts" in the Bahamas, "it is vitally important for accountability that Bahamian residents and other visitors make sure they are properly documented by going to Nassau and working with the Bahamian and U.S. governments."
For days, however, Florida lawmakers have been calling on the Trump administration to wave the U.S.'s visa requirements for Bahamian citizens forced to flee the disaster.
After Broward County Democratic state Rep. Shevrin Jones called on the Trump administration, as well as Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to consider suspending visa requirements for Bahamians, both Rubio and Scott spoke out in support of the request.
"Florida has deep ties to the Bahamas. Many Floridians have family living there," Rubio said in a statement on Twitter on Wednesday.
Both Rubio and Scott penned a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to waive visa restrictions.
"Bahamians aren't asking for [Temporary Protected Status,]" Rubio said in a statement on Thursday. "They want to expedite [and/or] waive visa requirements for those displaced until it is safe to return."
Days later, the Trump administration has yet to say whether it plans to waive visa requirements for the Bahamians forced to flee their homes, many of which have been destroyed by the Category 5 storm.
Had the visa requirement been waived for Bahamians, however, it appears likely that Sunday's situation might have been avoided.