Haitian activists in Miami are calling on the Bahamian government to suspend all immigration enforcement actions until the battered islands and their undocumented residents have had a chance to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian. Today the Little Haiti-based Family Action Network Movement (FANM), formerly known as the Haitian Women of Miami, and more than 20 other groups released a letter addressed to Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis and other government officials.
"Our agency has received several SOS from residents [in the Bahamas] because they are scared to seek help because of their immigration status," the letter says. "Fear in Haitian immigrant communities is at an all-time high and, without intervention, will prevent needy families from accessing vital services, including asking for shelter in public facilities, when needed, and protecting or assisting others."
The letter, which was delivered in person to the Bahamian consulate in Miami by FANM's executive director, Marleine Bastien, was signed by various Florida-based groups, including New Florida Majority, Florida Immigrant Coalition, Miami Workers Center, and 350 South Florida. Organizations from Washington, D.C.; New York; and other cities also added their support to the petition.
"In times of grave disaster, access to services should be a basic right," Bastien tells New Times. "We cannot allow for that to be hindered by misguided efforts to enforce immigration laws at shelters."
As with many natural disasters, Hurricane Dorian is expected to affect poor and undocumented Bahamians the hardest. The monster storm reached Category 5 as it battered the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, whose total population is about 70,000.
On Abaco, the town of Marsh Harbour is home to two major shantytowns — the Mudd and Pigeon Peas — which comprise about 70 percent of unregulated housing on the island, according to a census of shantytowns released in December. Both were nearly flattened by Dorian. These shantytowns, largely made of plywood, could barely handle 40 mph gusts, much less the 185 mph sustained winds and 200 mph gusts that came with Dorian. Of the estimated 2,600 residents of Pigeon Peas and the Mudd, about 20 percent were found to be undocumented in the 2018 census.
Aline François, the programs manager at FANM, tells New Times she has multiple family members unaccounted for in Grand Bahama, including little cousins and a nephew. She says she's been communicating with a friend in Freeport — her hometown — through scattered WhatsApp conversations, limited by spotty cell service and low battery. Earlier this week, he told her he had heard that some people were being asked for documentation at government shelters. Though François' family has legal status, she fears the practice might prevent her undocumented neighbors and others from asking for assistance.
"People are either undocumented or, if they may have had their papers processed, they might not have proof of that. I don't think many people are thinking of taking documents and bringing them to get assistance — they are in survival mode," François says.
A spokesperson from the prime minister's office did not respond to a request for comment from New Times.
The Bahamas has tightened its immigration laws considerably in the past few years, dating back before Minnis' tenure, to crack down on the islands' large population of Haitians, as well as migrants from countries such as Jamaica and Cuba. Beginning in 2015, a Bahamian immigration policy requiring that all residents carry passports has led to increased raids of shantytowns and other areas with large undocumented populations.
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Haitians, both documented and undocumented, make up the country's largest ethnic minority and have been overwhelmingly affected by the new policies in the Bahamas, where it's estimated that one in ten Bahamians is of Haitian descent. In 2009, the number of Haitians living in the Bahamas was an estimated 39,000 out of a population of about 350,000, according to the Bahamian Department of Statistics. That figure likely undercounts the real total because many Haitians do not have legal status.
The most recent death toll for Dorian stands at 30 people, although François and others believe the actual number of storm-related deaths is probably much higher due to the large number of Haitian migrants who might have decided against evacuating to shelters.
"It was the first thing that popped into my mind when Dorian hit," François says. "Before anything, I knew that Haitians there would probably be too afraid to seek help, and if they did, they probably would be treated harshly. We do know that the Bahamas has a history of treating Haitians very poorly, as well as immigrants overall."
The Bahamas does not automatically offer citizenship to people born there to non-Bahamian parents. On paper, the country allows stateless children born in the Bahamas to apply for citizenship between their 18th and 19th birthdays. But bureaucratic obstacles and lengthy administrative delays in the process have caused many to go without documentation.