Storm-Ravaged Bahamians Seeking to Enter the U.S. May Face Immigration Hurdles

© Reuters. A woman looks down through a plane window as the plane takes off during an evacuation operation after Hurricane Dorian struck the Abaco Islands in Marsh Harbor.

By Nick Brown and Joseph Ax

NASSAU, Bahamas / NEW YORK (Reuters) – Emitte Bootle spent 25 years driving school buses on the Bahamas’ Great Abaco Island, but now that Hurricane Dorian has devastated his home, there are no students to drive or where to take them.

He and his wife are considering trying to move to the United States and looking for work as a landscaper, truck driver or bus driver.

“What the government needs to do is build better housing and infrastructure, and I don’t know if they can do it,” said Bootle, 54. “Abaco may not return in my life.”

Bootle is not alone. Several Bahamians interviewed by Reuters, in Great Abaco, Nassau and Florida, where hundreds of evacuees got off a cruise ship on Saturday, said they may try to emigrate to the United States rather than face uncertain reconstruction at home.

It’s unclear whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has sought to severely restrict legal and illegal immigration, will pave the way. But a growing chorus of members of Congress are calling for the suspension of visa requirements to help reunite stranded Bahamians with American relatives.

When asked Monday if he would consider relaxing immigration rules to help storm-battered Bahamians, Trump said the Bahamas had “tremendous problems” allowing “very bad people” to enter the country, and that he wanted to make sure that those people didn’t make it. to the United States.

“We have to be very careful,” Trump told reporters. “Everybody needs totally adequate documentation.”

Dorian hit the Bahamas with winds of 200 miles per hour last week, causing immense destruction among the Abacos Islands. Authorities have said that at least 45 people were killed.

On Sunday, Bahamians were ordered to get off a ferry heading to Florida if they did not have a U.S. visa, even though others without a visa had already traveled to the U.S. provided they had a passport and proof of no criminal record. .

US Customs blamed the ferry operator for the incident.

PASSPORT LOST IN FLOODS

But for Bahamians like 61-year-old Anthony Morley who waited for the storm to pass on the roof of a restaurant, existing rules can prove a major obstacle.

Morley said her passport was lost in the flood. But he doesn’t think he can stay long in the capital Nassau, where demand for homes and jobs far outstrips supply.

“The government says everyone is being fed, and that’s good,” Morley said. “But to eat I can fish. What I need is a house. I don’t have a bed, a refrigerator. I don’t even have a Bible.”

Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, the two US senators from Florida, which has the largest population of Bahamian-Americans in the country, have asked Trump to relax visa requirements to allow Bahamians to stay with relatives in the United States. .

United States Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida sent a letter expressing support for a program known as Temporary Protected Status, which allows foreign nationals whose home countries have been affected by a war or natural disaster live and work in the United States.

Fourteen other members of Florida’s 27-seat congressional delegation, including two Republicans, jointly signed the letter, and Wilson’s office said it expected others to do so this week.

TPS is a limited tool, granting legal status only to those already living in the United States and it lasts for up to 18 months, although in the past administrations have often extended them for years.

Some natural disasters, such as the devastation of Honduras and Nicaragua by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, have resulted in TPS declarations for those countries.

WORKING TO END TPS

Other hurricanes have not caused TPS. Haiti suffered a series of devastating hurricanes that began with Jeanne in 2004, but Haitians did not receive TPS until January 2010, when a massive earthquake destroyed much of the country.

The U.S. government currently grants TPS to 10 countries, but the Trump administration has worked to end protections for several of those countries as part of its broader anti-immigration push.

For Bahamians wishing to come to the United States, the Trump administration could consider “humanitarian probation,” which is offered on a case-by-case basis to people facing extremely dire circumstances.

“They definitely have immigration tools at their legal discretion to allow people from the Bahamas to immigrate to the United States,” said León Rodríguez, who served as director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Barack Obama administration, Trump’s Democratic predecessor.

US Representative Adriano Espaillat, whose New York City district includes a sizable Bahamian-American population, cited the ferry incident as proof that Trump should take steps to ensure that Bahamians fleeing Dorian are not turned away.

“Turning your back on people who need help is not American,” he told Reuters.