As Hurricane Dorian leaves devastation in the Bahamas in its wake, thousands of the island nation’s citizens are seeking refuge in the US, but some have been barred entry.
Many Bahamians have been allowed to enter the US without visas in the days since the arrival of the Category 5 hurricane on September 1, which has left about 70,000 Bahamians homeless, more than 43 dead and an unknown number missing, though unofficial estimates are in the thousands.
On Sunday night, Brian Entin, an investigative reporter in Miami for TV network WSVN, tweeted that Bahamians who did not have visas were kicked off a ferry when trying to evacuate from Freeport in the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Entin said that crew members allowed Bahamians who only had passports and a police record to board the ferry, but they were then informed by Customs and Border Protection officers that those without visas would not be allowed to enter the US.
A CBP spokesperson said Monday that the agency is not denying or discouraging evacuation efforts, but is asking private vessel and aircraft operators to consult with the Bahamian authorities before trying to evacuate.
Entin tweeted that the ferry featured in his videos was indeed operated by a private ferry company, and that CBP blamed the ferry company for asking the Bahamians to evacuate. “If those folks did stay on the boat and arrived, we would have processed them,” one of the officials told Entin. “They were not ordered off the boat by any government entity.”
The ferry company, meanwhile, claims that they were told visas would be required when they sent a passenger manifest to US authorities, according to Entin.
The CBP spokesperson said Bahamians seeking to be admitted to the US without visas must apply at one of two CBP preclearance facilities located in the Nassau and Freeport International Airports. They must also have no criminal record, a valid passport and a police certificate issued within the last six months.
The agency said in a statement that evacuations are still happening “according to established policy and procedures,” citing almost 1,500 Bahamians who arrived in Palm Beach, Florida, on Saturday and were “processed without incident.”
Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters on Monday that the agency is prioritizing the safety of Bahamians and will allow them to enter the US whether or not they have the required travel documents. CBP will determine how long they can remain in the US depending on how recovery in the Bahamas progresses, he said.
“We would not support returning people to where it’s not safe to be,” he said.
But he emphasized that individuals with criminal histories who would, under normal circumstances, be entered into deportation proceedings will not be able to just roam free in the US. Rather, those individuals will be referred to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and detained, he said.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted Monday that turning away Bahamians is the “height of cruelty—denying help to those who need it most.”
“This administration has said the words on the Statue of Liberty should be rewritten, and in their actions, they are already changing who we are as a country,” he added. “It’s on us to prove we’re better than this.”
The US could do more to admit Bahamians suffering after Dorian
“CBP could be doing a bit more to work with the ferry operators or the Bahamian government,” Adam Greenberg, an immigration attorney in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said in an interview. “They have a lot of discretion under the law.”
There are three ways that the US could make processing smoother for Bahamians who do not have proper documentation or who are unable to undergo normal procedures.
CBP could admit Bahamians without visas or passports, as permitted by the Immigration and Nationality Act in emergency situations. Republican Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott asked President Donald Trump to do so in a letter last week.
The Department of Homeland Security could also use its discretion to grant Bahamians parole, which gives them the ability to temporarily enter the US despite lacking the necessary documentation.
Parole is only granted in situations where DHS finds that there are pressing humanitarian concerns or it would significantly benefit the public, and migrants are expected to eventually return to their home countries.
The third option is for DHS to give the Bahamas Temporary Protected Status, which is reserved for nations that have become unsafe or experienced environmental disasters. With TPS, Bahamians could live and work in the US while their country rebuilds, as did Haitians after a major 2010 earthquake.
Morgan said that his agency is weighing TPS for the Bahamas and that he will raise the issue with President Donald Trump. But Trump has recently tried to roll back TPS protections for over 300,000 migrants, including those from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, and might be reluctant to grant it to another country.