It’s been more than a week since Hurricane Dorian decimated parts of the Bahamas. The death toll has climbed to at least 50, and according to some news reports, 1,300 people are reported missing — a drop from an initial figure of 2,500.
Thousands of Bahamians face a difficult decision in the days, weeks and months ahead: whether they should stay to rebuild, come to the United States for awhile, or aim to start a new life in America.
A week ago, a cruise ship of Bahamian evacuees arrived in South Florida, but just a few days later, there was confusion and a lack of clarity about who will be allowed into the U.S. and for how long. Some who wanted to leave Freeport, Grand Bahama, were turned back.
The Department of Homeland Security this week also released new guidelines for Bahamians seeking to come to the U.S.
On the South Florida Roundup, host Tom Hudson spoke with a panel of journalists about these immigration rules. He was joined by Brian Entin, an investigation reporter with WSVN; Monique Madan, immigration reporter for The Miami Herald; and Tim Padgett, WLRN’s Americas editor.
Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:
TOM HUDSON: Brian, there's lots of confusion about whose call it was. Was it the ferry company's call? Was was there a call made by Customs and Border Protection that this was the documentation necessary once they got to Fort Lauderdale? What's your assessment here in the cool light of several days later about where that decision lies?
BRIAN ENTIN: We still really don't know. On the ship, the crew members were telling the passengers that ... it was OK for you to come with a Bahamian passport and police record. But when we sent the manifest to Customs and Border Protection, before we departed, they told us, "No, we've changed things and you need to get those people off the ship."
But when we arrived into Port Everglades, six hours later because we had a stop in Bimini, Customs and Border Protection was very quick to meet with us and tell us, "No that's not true." What was said on the ferry. They could have come. We never told them that they couldn't come. But we did sort of warn them that if they did come, it could be a very lengthy process and it could delay the ferry.
HUDSON: So that was Sunday into Monday. Then we heard from the Trump administration. Do we have any kind of clarity at this point about what the status is or could be expected by the Bahamians who would like to leave Grand Bahama and Abaco?
TIM PADGETT: It still seems very murky to me. As of this time last week, we were expecting that it would just be protocol really for the Trump administration to grant the request from all of the top Florida politicians here to to give Bahamians, at least those from Grand Bahama and Abaco islands that were so hard hit by this hurricane, a visa waiver, meaning essentially to just make it very easy for them to get in, get off those islands, come here to stay with relatives, sort of regroup, get their lives back together. It just seemed like a no brainer.
But by Sunday-Monday, we began to realize that that it was it was going to be nothing of the sort. Things got further muddled. Bahamians are showing us documents for example of all kinds of new things. It seems more complicated now than it was even before the hurricane.
HUDSON: The administration and the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection issuing statements saying they're issuing guidelines. Some of the statements and guidelines refer to agent discretion. What does that mean for a Bahamian who is seeking refuge in the United States looking to evacuate for an indeterminate amount of time?
MONIQUE MADAN: What that means is that whatever border agent they get next in line is the one that will determine, based on his or her own pure discretion, what their length of travel will be. I spoke with some CBP agents who said, "Well, I used to be in that post, and one thing I would look at is how many times this person has traveled to the U.S. in the last year." If that CBP officer feels that they've been here too long or too often in the last year they'd give you a shorter length of stay, when the default time is usually about six months.
And another thing — and this is important because it's been on these documents that they've been giving Bahamians, at least in Nassau — they want to see proof of a return flight. They want to make sure you're not going to stay in the United States. And that's something that's deeply troubling for a lot of people.