The acting chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection offered new assurances to Bahamian survivors of Hurricane Dorian that they will be allowed entry into the United States, less than a day after dozens of evacuees were forced off a ship bound for Florida because they didn’t possess visas.
The president, however, isn’t ready to make that guarantee.
“If you’re from the Bahamas, and you want to come to the United States, you’re going to be allowed to come to the United States,” acting USCBP Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters on Monday, admitting that there has been “some confusion” in the aftermath of the hurricane’s devastation of the Bahamas last week.
“Any type of natural disaster like this… there’s gonna be some confusion,” said Morgan, but emphasized that, barring convictions for serious crimes, “we will accept anyone on humanitarian reasons” seeking refuge from the storm’s aftermath.
Some of that confusion came from President Donald Trump himself, who only minutes after Morgan’s remarks told reporters on the White House lawn that “everybody needs totally proper documentation” in order to leave the Bahamas.
The United States, Trump continued, has “had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there… including some very bad people.”
“We are going to be very very strong in that,” Trump said of documenting Bahamian refugees, adding that “large sections, believe it or not, of the Bahamas were not hit” by the hurricane.
Less than 24 hours before Morgan’s remarks, the Trump administration’s response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean was even less clear. More than 100 Bahamians trying to escape the hurricane’s devastation were ordered off of a ferry departing storm-ravaged Freeport, told by a crew member over the ship’s intercom system that if they attempted to enter the United States without a visa, “you will have trouble.”
“Please, all passengers that don’t have U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” the crew member continued.
In a statement, CBP denied that it had ordered the passengers’ removal, and blamed the decision on a communication error between the ferry’s operators and agency representatives.
“CBP was notified of a vessel preparing to embark an unknown number of passengers in Freeport and requested that the operator of the vessel coordinate with U.S. and Bahamian government officials in Nassau before departing The Bahamas,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement. But the ferry operator, Balearia Caribbean, either misunderstood or decided that the vessel couldn’t wait for hours while the arrival was coordinated—resulting in dozens of people being forced to disembark.
“CBP told them that everyone that everyone who doesn’t have a U.S. visa, and who’s traveling on police record has to come off,” booted passenger Renard Oliver told Miami news station WSVN, holding his infant daughter in his arms. “Normally you can use police record by way of airplane, at least… It’s hurtful, because I’m watching my daughters cry, but it is what it is.”
The Trump administration has faced calls to clarify the process by which hurricane survivors can seek safe haven in the United States, either by suspending traditional visa requirements for Bahamian citizens with relatives in the United States, or by extending Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation to the Bahamas. TPS, as the name implies, gives citizens of countries affected by natural disasters or civil unrest the ability to temporarily live and work in the United States, a status that can be extended for years.
But the Trump administration has been increasingly hostile to granting and extending TPS designations. The Department of Homeland Security is currently entangled in a federal court case after seeking to terminate TPS for South Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador, which would strip protective status from more than 300,000 people. The administration has also indicated that it does not support extending TPS to citizens of Venezuela—blaming, in part, legal efforts to stymy the termination of TPS for other countries.
“As long as courts continue to displace executive branch authority to terminate TPS status, it makes a decision to exercise the discretion in the first place considerably more complicated and more akin to a permanent status, rather than temporary,” wrote acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli in a July letter to Sens. Dick Durbin (IL) and Bob Menendez (NJ), who along with 24 other senators called for extending the status for those seeking to flee the country. Cuccinelli added that “there may be other immigration relief measures available” to those in need.
Without TPS, Bahamians are left with uncertainty about their immigration status beyond the discretionary entry promised by CBP—which Florida lawmakers say isn’t nearly enough.
“The United States government should help ensure that those who were left with nothing can easily seek shelter with their families in the United States,” wrote Reps. Brian Mast and Stephanie Murphy, a Republican and Democrat of Florida, respectively, in a letter calling on President Trump to “expedite, waive, or suspend certain visa requirements” for Bahamian citizens affected by the storm. The letter was co-signed by 18 other members of Florida’s congressional delegation.
Morgan told reporters on Monday that while “there hasn’t been any formal grant of TPS” for the Bahamas, his agency will continue to allow for discretionary entry on humanitarian grounds—within reason.
“There are still people that are enemies to this country,” Morgan said, noting that while his agency wouldn’t send Bahamians with criminal convictions back to their storm-ravaged country, but would turn them over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.