Dozens of weary Bahamas residents hoping to seek refuge in the United States from the storm-ravaged islands were kicked off a ferry headed for Florida on Sunday night, after an announcement on board that anyone without a valid visa would “have problems” at the American port of entry.
Videos of the incident spread rapidly on social media, with frustrated passengers lamenting that standard protocols — which in the past had allowed Bahamians to enter the United States without a visa as long as they had a passport and documentation of a clean criminal record — were not being honored.
“At the last minute like this,” said one passenger, Renard Oliver, who held onto a toddler as he spoke to a reporter with the Miami television station WSVN. “It’s hurtful because I’m watching my daughters cry, but it is what it is.”
Parts of the Bahamas were devastated as Hurricane Dorian lashed the country last week. Hundreds of residents are still missing, and the authorities have said that it could take months to tally the dead.
Mr. Oliver said that after he had boarded the boat, crew members announced over the intercom that United States Customs and Border Protection officials had called the boat and said that anyone without a visa had to disembark the ship.
American officials said their procedures for processing Bahamians into the United States had not changed. Unlike with other cruise ship operators and airlines that have ushered hundreds from the Bahamas to safety in the United States since Hurricane Dorian hit, the officials said, the ferryboat’s operators had not contacted the American embassy ahead of time to confirm that passengers without visas did, in fact, meet the requirements for entry, which include a valid passport and a police record obtained within the last six months.
A spokeswoman said the agency had not denied the passengers entry into the United States, but instead had advised that they disembark and coordinate with the American embassy because without such pre-clearance it would have taken hours to process them after arrival in Florida.
“C.B.P. continues to process the arrivals of passengers evacuating from the Bahamas according to established policy and procedures — as demonstrated by the nearly 1,500 Hurricane Dorian survivors who arrived at the Port of Palm Beach, Fla., aboard a cruise ship on Saturday and were processed without incident,” an agency spokeswoman said in a statement.
The statement continued, “C.B.P. relies on the transportation companies in both the air and sea environments to be engaged in ensuring the safety and well-being of any individuals that have been devastated by this tragedy, and that requires transparent communication and planning for adequate resources to receive any arrivals.”
The ferry was operated by the company Balearia, which conducts frequent sailings between Fort Lauderdale, Bimini and Grand Bahama — all popular tourist destinations. Representatives of the company could not be reached for comment, and it was not clear if or why Sunday’s boarding may have been handled differently than in the past.
Peter Vazquez, a yacht broker in Fort Lauderdale who has been delivering aid to the Bahamas daily, said he has been bringing storm survivors back to South Florida and they had encountered no problems. The people were not required to have a visa, but they did have to check in upon landing, where they were processed by Customs officials, he said.
In a statement, Senator Rick Scott of Florida urged officials from C.B.P. and the Bahamian government to clarify the rules on visas, to waive some visa requirements for those Bahamians who have family in the United States, and to set up a temporary site at American ports of entry to help speed Bahamas residents through immigration clearance.
“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,” he said.
Frances Robles and Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting.