Hurricane

Will some Bahamians get to seek refuge in the U.S. in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian?

Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have sent President Donald Trump a letter asking the administration to waive U.S. visa requirements for Bahamian citizens displaced by Hurricane Dorian with close relatives in the U.S.

The move comes after Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Bahamian American with family in the Bahamas, called the two to ask them to help provide sanctuary to those affected by Hurricane Dorian. On Sunday, the roaring Category 5 storm made landfall in the Bahamas with 185 mph winds and gusts up to 220 mph. The catastrophic hurricane parked itself over the northwest Bahamas for almost two days, causing devastation on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.

“As Americans, and others throughout our hemisphere and across the globe, work to provide aid and assistance for the many needs of the Bahamian people at this time, perhaps one of the most basic yet meaningful steps our government can take immediately is to ensure that those who have lost everything, including family members in some instances, are provided the opportunity for shelter and reunification with family in the United States,” the senators’ letter says.

It continued: “Florida enjoys historically deep ties with the Bahamas and, by proximity, many Floridians have family in the Bahamas. While parts of the Bahamas endured sustained winds of 180 miles for almost two days, Florida watched and prepared for Dorian’s landfall. Although Florida’s east coast continues to experience high winds and storm surges, our state is fortunate to avoid a direct hit. Floridians are now eager to help their family and friends in the Bahamas.”

What the senators are requesting is not the same as Temporary Protected Status, a temporary legal status given to foreign nationals of designated countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster, which allows people to live and work in the United States for limited times.

The measure proposed by Rubio and Scott would allow citizens of the Bahamas to stay with family in the United States while the country rebuilds in the wake of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction.

It is unclear if TPS is being discussed. In a Wednesday conference call between members of Congress and the State Department, a State Department official said the agency is focused on processing visa adjudications from the Bahamas quickly instead of offering TPS to Bahamians in the U.S. The official said it is the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to grant TPS to the Bahamas.

DHS did not respond to emails sent by the Herald on Tuesday and Wednesday.

As of Tuesday, the Bahamian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not put in a formal request for TPS, a government spokeswoman said.

“It’s a bit early. We are trying to regroup and make sure everybody is OK,” she said. “Then we’ll get to that.”

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Mike Fernandez, a Coral Gables philanthropist and healthcare executive, flew into the Bahamas by helicopter on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019, to drop off relief items in Marsh Harbour after Hurricane Dorian devastated the island. Courtesy: Mike Fernandez

As of May 2019, there were 10 countries with TPS, though they are set to expire late this year or early next year: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The Trump administration has worked hard to end decades of TPS, particularly for Central America and Haiti.

Hurricane Dorian’s fury swallowed swaths of Abaco, leaving homes underwater, crippling hospitals and shelters and leveling communities. The storm so far has claimed seven people’s lives; the government expects that number to rise.

But even if the Bahamas is granted TPS status, it would likely benefit few people, according to immigration lawyers. The reason: TPS would only apply to Bahamians who are already in the United States the day that TPS is announced — whether illegally in some form, including expired visas, or in the country legally visiting relatives.

When asked about TPS for Bahamians at a Miami press conference Wednesday, Sen. Scott said “that will be a decision by the feds.”

“Here’s the issue with TPS: TPS is only for individuals who are here. ... I’ve asked about it. I pushed with Venezuela. I know it’s something everyone will look at,” Scott said.

Most recently, the Trump administration has refused to allow TPS for more countries, even Venezuela, which have been devastated by an economic crisis, as well as re-designating it for Haiti, a country still devastated by a 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

“It seems that there is a great reluctance for TPS for Venezuela, for example, despite the heavy influence of Marco Rubio and others who have the president’s ear,” said Miami immigration lawyer Callan Garcia, who worked on the TPS issue for Haitians after the 2010 earthquake.

So what about people currently in the Bahamas who want to come to the United States?

There’s likely little that can be done to get them to the U.S., said Garcia, who used to work for Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami, which provides immigration services to South Florida’s low-income refugee and immigrant community. The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas can expedite visa requests that had already been in the pipeline, especially for people with family in Florida.

There is also “humanitarian parole,” which is usually given for people seeking specialized medical treatment in the United States. But it’s an option that was rarely granted even before Trump, and virtually never given now.

After the Haiti earthquake, some Haitians with minor children born in the United States were allowed to come to the United States temporarily on humanitarian parole. Some Haitian refugees were even sheltered at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo.

But Trump’s administration is less open to refugees, even ones from places as hard hit as the Bahamas, Garcia said. “All these options are legal, but certainly seem unlikely it’s going to happen,” he added.

“I don’t see the Trump administration granting or supporting TPS. Arguably Haiti is still in a worse position than the Bahamas. So is Venezuela,” said Tammy Fox-Isicoff, who sits on the board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This administration doesn’t like TPS. Once they give it, there’s no way to end it, at least in a merciful way.”

If TPS for Bahamians were to be on the table, support for it wouldn’t be strong at the county level either. On Wednesday, a resolution to back TPS for Bahamians failed at the Miami-Dade commission. The proposal was to add the Bahamas to a resolution already on the agenda backing an extension of TPS for Haitians who were in the United States during the 2010 earthquake. Some commissioners objected to suggesting the Bahamas is too dangerous for the return of residents, a central finding for TPS extension.

“I don’t want to have the issue confused with TPS for Haitians,” said Commissioner Dennis Moss. “I can’t support that.”

Chairwoman Audrey Edmonson, whose family is from the Bahamas, led the opposition to the resolution. She opened the meeting by saying she still had relatives unaccounted for on the islands. She said asking the Trump administration for a TPS waiver for Bahamians could send the wrong message about the Bahamian government’s capabilities.

“They’re very independent,” Edmonson said of the Bahamas. “We don’t want to make it appear they’re incapable of helping themselves.”

The proposal largely involved a symbolic declaration that Miami-Dade endorse TPS for both Haitians and Bahamians. It came from Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo as a way to provide additional relief for Bahamas residents.

“We’ve seen the total devastation,” Bovo said. “This is exactly what TPS was envisioned for.”

Bovo agreed to withdraw his request for the TPS proposal and wait to see if the Bahamas requests it. At a meeting with Mayor Carlos Gimenez and county commissioners Tuesday, the Bahamian consul-general in Miami, Linda Mackey, did not request support for TPS from Miami-Dade, a spokeswoman for Gimenez said.

Miami Herald Staff Writers Alex Daugherty and Samantha Gross contributed to this report.
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Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.
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