The Bahamas sit just a short 50 miles from the Florida coast, but for many in the islands, the U.S. mainland might feel like it’s on the other side of the world.
The islands were devastated by Hurricane Dorian, which sat over the islands as a Category 5 and then Category 4 storm. When the winds and rain subsided, the residents found themselves standing amid ruin. Some have been transported to the U.S. by ferries and private boats in an effort to provide humanitarian assistance because of the lack of food and shelter on the islands, but now there’s the pesky issue of immigration status.
For years the U.S. granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) which sheltered certain groups from deportation. Typically, they were people from areas affected by disasters, like Haitians after the earthquakes. TPS officially lasts 18 months, but has been extended for different groups for years. The Trump administration has worked to end TPS for those that no longer need it, but it’s not clear if they will grant it to Bahamians, or provide them a path for emigration.
The White House is considering what to do, Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan told reporters on Monday.
“I’ve authorized the deployment of an enormous amount of resources to southern Florida to make sure we can receive people coming in from the Bahamas. We still have to balance the humanitarian need and assistance of those that need it versus the safety of this country.”
On Sunday, Bahamians were ordered off a ferry headed to Florida if they did not have a U.S. visa, even though others without visas had already traveled to the United States as long as they had a passport and proof of no criminal record.
U.S. Customs blamed the incident on the ferry operator.
Republicans Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, the two U.S. senators from Florida, which has the country’s largest population of Bahamian-Americans, have asked Trump to relax visa requirements to allow Bahamians to stay with relatives in the United States.
Instead of TPS, the Trump administration could consider “humanitarian parole,” which is offered case by case to individuals who face extremely dire circumstances.
Leon Rodriguez, who served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the administration of Barack Obama, said:
“They definitely have immigration tools at their legal discretion to allow people from the Bahamas to immigrate to the United States.”