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U.S. Sows Confusion Over How Bahamas Residents May Enter After Hurricane Dorian

People await evacuation at a dock in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, on Saturday in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
People await evacuation at a dock in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, on Saturday in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

Updated at 8:57 p.m. ET

The Department of Homeland Security has released additional guidance on visa requirements for Bahamians trying to travel to the U.S. after Hurricane Dorian. The details follow a day of U.S. officials sending mixed signals about how Bahamians, especially those traveling by boat, will be allowed into the U.S.

"Bahamians arriving to the United States by vessel must be in possession of a valid passport AND valid travel visa," the department said. Visa waivers could be granted for some travelers who fly to the U.S. and get pre-clearance. "Travelers who would otherwise qualify for the Visa Waiver Program and who travel by air from a CBP Preclearance facility in Freeport or Nassau may not need a U.S. visitor's visa." Freeport Airport was devastated by the hurricane.

Monday afternoon, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said his agency has processed "thousands of folks" from two cruise ships as well as aircraft.

Speaking at the White House, Morgan admitted there has been some confusion surrounding the process by which Bahamian refugees are being allowed into the country, including passengers on a ferry boat who said they were turned away Sunday because they lacked travel visas.

Morgan said Border Patrol agents "will accept anyone on humanitarian reasons that needs to come here" whether they have proper travel documents or not. "We've already processed people that have travel documents and don't have travel documents," he said.

"This is a humanitarian mission," Morgan said. "If your life is in jeopardy and you're in the Bahamas and you want to get to the United States, you're going to be allowed to come to the United States." He said there would still be some vetting to "make sure that we're not letting dangerous people in, taking advantage of this."

Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan speaks during a briefing at the White House on Monday.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan speaks during a briefing at the White House on Monday.

But a few hours later, President Trump appeared to contradict Morgan. "We have to be very careful," Trump told reporters Monday afternoon, "Everybody needs totally proper documentation."

Morgan said people found to have "long criminal records" will be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We're not letting dangerous people in," he said.

The administration has not yet decided whether to grant the Bahamians who enter the U.S. temporary protected status, allowing them to stay in the country. Trump said, "We're talking to a lot of people about that." Earlier, Morgan said it will depend on how long it takes to rebuild the islands. "We would not support returning them to a place where its not safe for them to be," he said.

Florida's two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have asked the Trump administration to waive any visa requirements for residents of the Bahamas who wish to enter the U.S. In a Sept. 4 letter to the president they wrote: "This will allow citizens of the Bahamas, who have low visa overstay rates, to stay with family in the United States while the country rebuilds in the wake of Hurricane Dorian's unprecedented destruction."

Under a standing Customs and Border Protection policy, some Bahamians with a passport and police certification who don't have a criminal record can travel to the U.S. without a visa if they are pre-cleared at the airport.

Greg Allen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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