National Democrats are using the White House’s decision not to grant Temporary Protected Status for the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian as a political argument against the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Five presidential candidates signed onto a bill introduced by Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez on Thursday, a day after media reports emerged that the White House wasn’t considering TPS for the Bahamas. They argued that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to accept hurricane victims.
“Hurricane Dorian devastated the Grand Bahama and Abaco islands and swept away homes and livelihoods, but the Trump administration made the heartless decision not to help those impacted,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in a statement. “The U.S. has a moral obligation to grant Temporary Protected Status to Bahamians struggling to survive after this disaster.”
TPS is a temporary legal status given to foreign nationals of designated countries affected by armed conflict or natural disaster, allowing them to live and work in the United States for a limited time. Menendez’s bill would allow Bahamians who are present in the U.S. at the time the bill goes into effect to stay for 18 months.
Presidential candidates Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Michael Bennett, D-Colo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also signed on to Menendez’s bill, and Democrats in the House of Representatives are expected to introduce their own Bahamas TPS bill in the coming days.
But members of Congress from South Florida, home to the country’s largest Bahamian community, are split on what they want. Though Democratic presidential candidates are demanding TPS for the Bahamas, South Florida Republicans are opposed to it and even South Florida Democrats acknowledge that TPS is not the most pressing immigration concern for the Bahamas.
Plus, the Bahamian government hasn’t asked to be part of the program.
“That’s not something being pushed by the Bahamian government,” Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Carl Smith said Monday.
Instead, the Bahamian government wants U.S. visa requirements temporarily waived so hurricane victims who lost everything can enter the United States for a limited period of time if they lack proper documentation. South Florida lawmakers from both political parties, including Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, have asked for visa requirements to be waived.
“Calls for TPS for the Bahamas are well intentioned,” Rubio tweeted on Friday. “But country is made up of 700 islands and 200 cays, [the] overwhelming majority of which are ok. Visa flexibility for impacted areas, not TPS, is what they have asked for and need.”
Democratic state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County resident with Bahamian roots and extended family in the Bahamas, said TPS isn’t defining the post-Dorian immigration conversation for Bahamians. It’s much different, he said, from the continuing discussion in South Florida about extending TPS to Venezuelans and opposing the end of TPS for Haitians, Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans.
About 195,000 Salvadorans, 57,000 Hondurans and 46,000 Haitians currently have TPS, according to the National Immigration Forum.
“I think it’s important that we not confuse the conversations that are happening right now,” Jones said. “TPS for Haitians and Venezuelans are not the same conversations we are having with the Bahamas because these people want to go back home. I think the best policy at the federal level that can be done is suspending some of the federal requirements for visas and some of the requirements needed for them to stay a little bit longer.”
South Florida members of Congress are split on TPS for the Bahamas, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans like Scott and Rubio opposing the idea.
While granting TPS to Venezuelans — and continuing the program for Haitians, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans — are positions shared by all South Floridians in Congress, that changes when it comes to the Bahamas.
“Senator Scott is looking at every option available to help families in the Bahamas recover from the devastation of Hurricane Dorian,” Scott spokesperson Sarah Schwirian said. “He has spoken to the Prime Minister of the Bahamas many times and right now, no one on the islands is calling for TPS, and the focus is on food, water and shelter.”
South Florida Democrats in Congress are supportive of TPS for the Bahamas, but only if the government asks for it.
“These are not people that are asking for a handout. These are not refugees who came to the United States illegally or anything like that,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, who is of Bahamian descent.
Wilson supports TPS for Bahamians displaced by Dorian, but said expanding and clarifying U.S. visa requirements is the more pressing immigration issue, a position shared by Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala.
Wilson stressed that TPS, if the Bahamians ask for it, would be much more limited than it has been for other groups in the past. “It’s not that many people who would have TPS,” Wilson said.
There were about 33,000 Bahamian immigrants in the United States as of 2017, according to the Center for Migration Policy. That number includes naturalized citizens, which likely accounts for about half of the 33,000 total. Compare that to the estimated 290,000 Venezuelans who have fled to the U.S. from 2015-2019 and the 46,000 Haitians currently living in the U.S. under TPS.
Jones, the state representative from Broward, said it’s hard to estimate how many Bahamians would be in a position to benefit from TPS, noting that about 1,300 people are still unaccounted for after Hurricane Dorian made landfall over two weeks ago. But the overall number would be small, he said.
“Speaking with Senator Rubio, they are not talking about a lot of people who are asking for TPS,” Jones said. “I don’t think that number is over 1,500 people, and that’s just me doing a far shoot. I don’t think the number is that big.”
The U.S. government has granted TPS to small groups of people in the past, including an estimated 500 Somalians and 70 South Sudanese, according to the National Immigration Forum.
“TPS is not for people who want to come to the United States,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting director Ken Cuccinelli said in a Twitter thread on Friday. “TPS isn’t used to let people in, TPS is to allow them to stay here when something happens in their home country while they are visiting (e.g. a natural disaster or war breaks out).”
The administration is also opposed to expanding TPS because its efforts to end the program for Haiti and other countries have been blocked by court rulings.
Jones noted that many Bahamians want to go home as soon as possible, and the country’s political and economic situation is stable compared to Haiti and Venezuela.
Haiti has the lowest gross national income per capita of any country in the Western Hemisphere, and Venezuela’s residents face rampant inflation and starvation. The Bahamas, in contrast, has the highest national income per capita of any country in Latin America or the Caribbean. And some hurricane victims relocated from hard-hit Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands to other areas of the country that were largely untouched by Dorian.
“Bahamians love their country, they don’t want to stay here,” Jones said. “They want to go back to the Bahamas, but some of those individuals have nothing to go back to.”
Jones said some Bahamians may need to stay longer than the six months that a U.S. visitor visa grants them, and that TPS could help people who are unable to rebuild quickly.
“I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer,” Jones said. “I believe there are people who have been displaced and maybe TPS would benefit those individuals.”