By Rachel Knowles, Frances Robles, Caitlin Dickerson and Patricia Mazzei
NASSAU, the Bahamas — Destitute survivors of Hurricane Dorian who lost much of what they had to the powerful storm packed a government office in the Bahamas on Monday, desperate for a document that could be their ticket off the overwhelmed islands: a clean criminal record.
Hoping to reach Florida, they took every available seat inside the stuffy Criminal Records Office in Nassau, the capital, to request a piece of paper that, along with their passports, could free them to travel to the United States.
“Nobody knows where to turn, nobody knows what to do,” said Madlin Louis, 19, who would like to stay with relatives in Miami and maybe find work. “Try to start a new life, and then go back to Abaco, because that’s our home.”
Some 200 miles away, people from the Bahamas were landing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., trying to figure out their next move. A cruise ship on a relief mission docked near West Palm Beach on Sunday with some 1,400 people from the Bahamian city of Freeport on board.
The crisis wrought by Dorian, which killed at least 45 people in the northern Bahamas, and likely many more, has begun to be felt in earnest in Florida, with storm victims who own little more than the donated clothes on their backs arriving to seek respite, at least temporarily, from the utter ruin back home.
About 4,000 Bahamians have arrived since the hurricane — 2,000 each by air and by sea, said Diane Sabatino, the head of the Customs and Border Protection office in Miami, who is coordinating the response to the hurricane.
The United States has a long history of allowing evacuees of natural disasters to enter the country — and many of them stay. Tens of thousands of people from Honduras and Nicaragua came to the United States after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, more fled El Salvador after earthquakes in 2001, and many Haitians arrived in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
Dionisio J. D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation in the Bahamas, said the government there did not know exactly how many people had left or relocated because some were picked up by friends’ boats, private planes and helicopters. On Great Abaco Island, officials estimate that half the population of 20,000 has left for Nassau or other places.
“I don’t think the United States should have any great worry about the quantities of people that are coming in,” Mr. D’Aguilar said. “Those who are coming in are not going to become burdens to the state.”
Most of the travelers will be people with American travel visas, meaning many visit Florida frequently, he said. Most Bahamians, he added, probably need a little time away to “catch themselves” — take a hot bath, a good meal, and then determine what is next.
The robust Bahamian community in South Florida, which has deep ties to the islands, has been eager to welcome the new arrivals. But the rush to fill flights and ferries with storm survivors has raised questions about what immigration rules apply for Bahamians seeking refuge in the United States.
President Trump told reporters in Washington on Monday that the United States needed to be cautious.
“Everybody needs totally proper documentation,” he said. “The Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there.”
Mr. Trump did not mention any country by name, but many undocumented Haitians live in the Bahamas, particular on the Abaco Islands.
“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,” he added.
The confusion over who could come was highlighted over the weekend when 119 people from the Bahamas were ordered to get off a ferry bound for Florida because they did not have the necessary United States travel visas. Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, emphasized that hurricane victims would not be held hostage to paperwork.
“We’re not telling the cruise line, ‘You cannot allow anyone without documents,’” he said. “That’s just not being done.”
Still, video from the Miami television station WSVN showed frustrated passengers disembarking in Freeport and lamenting that their hopes to reach Port Everglades, in Fort Lauderdale, had been dashed.
Dominique Seymour, 24, who had been on the ferry, said the passengers had waited for hours in line and had been on board for over an hour when they were told they would “suffer penalties” if they did not have a visa. She disembarked along with her sister, 6-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew.
“This was heart-wrenching,” she said. “It felt as though our chances of leaving the island to find some sort of relief from what we were going through at home was taken away.”
Ms. Seymour said she was grateful for everything the United States had done for the Bahamas, “but at this point, many of us just need a mental break from this island — even if it’s for as little as a week.”
On Monday, she traveled to Nassau instead.
Pilar Boix Escolies, a spokeswoman for Baleària, the Spanish shipping company that runs the ferry, said the company required all passengers to have visas on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday allowed people without visas to board because United States immigration authorities said they could.
Only after the passengers had boarded did the authorities tell the company that Bahamians without a visa had to leave from Nassau, where they would get pre-clearance to enter the United States, she said.
“This was a situation we do not like. We interpreted instructions that were not correct,” Ms. Boix Escolies said. “They are making Baleària out to be the bad guys. When we board passengers, it is with the objective of taking them to their destination.”
United States authorities said on Monday that only travelers arriving by air were eligible to enter without visas, as long as they had provided a passport and documentation of a clean criminal record before boarding in the Bahamas.
Cruise ship operators and airlines have generally contacted the American embassy ahead of time to confirm that passengers without visas do, in fact, meet the entry requirements, according to the authorities.
But Ms. Sabatino, the Customs and Border Protection field coordinator in Miami, said the United States was handing the situation when necessary on a case-by-case basis.
“We use maximum flexibility in circumstances when people do not have the proper documents,” she said. “We have administrative procedures we can utilize to ensure individuals are admissible.”
Peter Vazquez, a yacht broker in Fort Lauderdale who has delivered aid to the Bahamas daily since the storm, said he had been bringing survivors to South Florida by plane and that they had encountered no problems. The people were not required to have a visa, but they did have to check in and be processed by Customs officials when they landed, he said.
Carl Smith, a spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency of the Bahamas, said in a news conference on Monday that there were 4,800 evacuees from Abaco and Grand Bahama in New Providence, an area that was not badly damaged during the hurricane.
Nearly as many appeared to be headed to Florida, where they found local support.
Oneil Khosa, chief executive of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, said not one of some 1,200 passengers who arrived there on his humanitarian cruise on Saturday required transportation to onward destinations. Everyone either rented a car or was picked up by family members, he said.
On Monday, Johny Blanc, 33, was evacuated from Great Abaco along with his cousin Fedeline Melice-Adderley, 29, on a private plane. They were taken to Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where they were trying to figure out their next move.
Mr. Blanc and Ms. Melice-Adderley, both Haitians with United States visas, were trying to get to Orlando, Fla., where they had relatives, and said they had no intention of returning to the Bahamas.
“We don’t have nothing left,” said Mr. Blanc, who worked as a mason in the Bahamas. “We have no place else, we can’t go back.”
The hurricane had destroyed their homes, located in the sprawling shantytown in Marsh Harbour known as the Mudd. During the storm, Ms. Melice-Adderley’s only child, Jessica Marcelin, 12, was swept away in the storm surge and has been missing ever since.
A friend of the family said Jessica was spotted at the Marsh Harbour airport during the week, boarding an evacuation flight.
“They say that, but I don’t know,” Ms. Melice-Adderley said.
Both Mr. Blanc and Ms. Melice-Adderley had American visas that expired in December, but they hoped that the United States would accommodate them on a more permanent basis.
Venrico Toote, 30, a travel agent in Treasure Cay, on Abaco, where most of the homes were destroyed or seriously damaged, said that his house could probably be repaired, but that his community lacked running water, power and a functioning bank or supermarket. He decided to leave.
Mr. Toote was first evacuated to Nassau, and then took a plane to West Palm Beach, where he got another flight to visit friends in North Carolina. He was fortunate to have an American travel visa, but he said he also saw United States immigration authorities working hard to accommodate people who did not have the proper paperwork. They were generally pulled aside for special processing, he said.
“I have been trying to recover mentally from everything that happened,” he said. “I am not opposed to staying in the U.S. I doubt I will be able to go back to my own community for a while.”
Mr. Toote said his office was underwater, and that though he had family in Nassau he was worried about the job prospects there.
“I don’t know how the employment situation is, because you have an entire island of people who just moved into one city,” he said.
For now, he is in North Carolina, and unsure of what comes next.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “I suppose I should be more concerned about these things, but right now I am just happy to be alive.”
Rachel Knowles reported from Nassau, the Bahamas; Frances Robles and Patricia Mazzei from Miami; and Caitlin Dickerson from New York. Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Washington, and Kirk Semple from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Frances Robles is a national and foreign correspondent based in Miami. Before joining The Times in 2013, she worked at the Miami Herald, where she covered Cuba and was based in both Nicaragua and Colombia.