How to Deal with Bahamians in U.S. Immigration Policy, Post-Dorian

Confronting a moral dilemma

By Dan Cadman on September 10, 2019

There has been implicit criticism directed at the U.S. government for its cautious, or perhaps simply disorganized, approach toward accepting individuals heading from the Bahamas to the mainland to escape the massive devastation from Hurricane Dorian. Some media outlets have highlighted the insistence that such individuals have proper documentation, or at least that such expatriations have been coordinated between governments.

The negative cast of the stories implies that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — which, by the way, sent Air and Marine Operations crews and others to aid in the post-hurricane survivor search-and-rescue efforts — is somehow being hard-hearted.

Some observers have pointed to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program and suggested that Dorian is a prime example of a situation in which TPS should be granted, noting that it was done in the past, for instance for Haiti and El Salvador. True. What they don't go on to mention, though, is that TPS was abused in those cases (and virtually every other instance in which it was granted). The hundreds of thousands of individuals who gained what was supposed to be "temporary" shelter are still here after decades, fighting in federal court to stay forever and were outraged when President Trump ordered their TPS status rescinded and directed them to depart. It's no wonder, then, that there is huge reluctance on the part of the administration to go down that path.

The criticisms from various quarters, including politicians and journalists, forced an exasperated CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan to disavow his agency's hand in turning anyone back. Consider that, though:

Is such a welcoming policy wise? How do we know exactly who is on those vessels and aircraft heading toward our shores? Do they have criminal histories? Are they involved in the lucrative transshipment drug trade that flourishes in the 2,700 islands, islets, and cays that compose the Bahamas?

Are they truly even Bahamians, or are they others entirely, riding the wave (literally) to get into the United States? This latter question is not far-fetched, given the Bahamas' position in Caribbean waters and its past penetration by migrant smugglers. The CIA World Fact Book tells us that there are approximately a third of a million Bahamians. How many others are there illegally awaiting movement to the United States at any point in time? We can't know.

Even if all of the individuals who will seek to enter claim to be law-abiding Bahamians, is the United States so foolhardy as to simply take their word for it? Have we learned nothing from the disastrous Mariel Boatlift? And what about any potential national security risks who may seize the opportunity to attempt entry? How ironic would that be on the cusp of the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

There are no easy answers to this humanitarian dilemma, but the U.S. government need not apologize for exercising both prudence and restraint in how it deals with a potential inflow of a third of a million people. And those who manipulated TPS, or consigned it to not-so-benign neglect by allowing its recipients to remain in the United States for decades unsupervised, now need to acknowledge that the current reluctance is a direct result of their shortsightedness.