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Hundreds of people boarded a ferry in Freeport, Bahamas, Sunday night, thinking their immediate Dorian nightmare was about to end. Just before the ferry took off for Fort Lauderdale, bad news crackled over the intercom.

“All passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” a crewman said.

About 100 people had to gather their belongings and walk the gangway back to misery.

“At the last minute like this, it’s kind of disappointing,” Renard Oliver told WSVN. “Watching my daughters cry. But it is what it is.”

What it is is an example why the visa requirements need to be waived for Bahamians trying to get to the United States. And it needs to be done immediately.

Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio sent an open letter to President Trump Sept. 4 asking him to quickly allow in refugees who have relatives in the U.S., 18 more Florida lawmakers also signed on.

There’s been no response so far from the Trump administration to this bipartisan appeal. A State Department spokesperson sent a generic email Monday saying the U.S. is working with Bahamian officials to provide disaster relief. She did not address the visa situation.

Scott did address it Monday, after he heard about the previous night’s events on the ferry.

“We cannot have the kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport,” he said.

Bahamians usually need a visa to visit the United States, but the requirement can be bypassed if they present a passport and a recent police certificate showing no criminal record.

A lot of people didn’t have such documents, or lost them in the wind and water of the Category 5 storm. Obtaining them now is next to impossible since the Bahamian government is literally swamped with bigger problems.

A lack of proper paperwork wasn’t the big problem Sunday night, however. It was a surplus of confusion.

The ferry company, Balearia Caribbean, told passengers U.S. Customs and Border Protection told it to remove everyone who didn’t have a visa.

The CBP said it did not order anyone off the ferry and would not have required visas for entry to the U.S. It pointed out that about 1,400 people traveled to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday aboard the cruise ship Grand Celebration. Many reportedly did not have visas.

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“Why they said that, I wouldn’t know,” a CBP official told WSVN. “It’s really heartbreaking for them to say that to these people who have suffered beyond comprehension.”

The whole fiasco might have been avoided if visa requirements had been waived. This isn’t the Mariel boatlift of 1980, where Fidel Castro put thousands of Cuban prisoners and mental patients on boats and sent them toward Key West. The risk of an unsavory character penetrating the U.S. border is minor compared to the totality of the Category 5 carnage.

Mark Green, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the northern Bahamas look “almost as though a nuclear bomb was dropped.”

It landed only 180 miles from the U.S. That’s 1,000 miles closer to the mainland than Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory Hurricane Maria devastated in 2017.

America has no legal obligation to provide aid and shelter, but we have a moral duty to help one of our closest neighbors.

The United Nations estimates Dorian left 70,000 people homeless. The majority probably don’t have relatives in the U.S.

About 395,000 people live in the Bahamas. It’s unclear whether the country can provide adequate shelter for such a large percentage — some 18% — of its population.

If it can’t, the U.S. should be open to providing help for all of Dorian’s refugees until the situation is stable enough for them to return home.

Scott has also proposed redirecting foreign aid to the Bahamas, easing the U.S. tax code to encourage charitable giving and transferring all Peace Corps efforts from China to the Bahamas.

Such moves are worth considering, depending on how relief and rebuilding efforts go. But there’s no need to keep deliberating over visa requirements.

Not surprisingly, President Trump on Monday afternoon poured a bucket of icy water on compassion, suggesting some “very bad people” might try to enter the United States. It was his typical, xenophobic response, but this time his cruelty is directed at the suffering of our neighbors.

The humanitarian risks grow with each day that passes. An area of disturbed weather is approaching the Caribbean and headed in the Bahamas’ direction.

If it strengthens, the last place these already traumatized people need to be is in the Bahamas. Especially if what’s keeping them there is a pile of government paperwork.

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