Twenty days — no more, no less. That's the length of time the Bahamian government gave the island's undocumented communities to recover from Hurricane Dorian before it recommenced deportations — just a shade less than three weeks to pick up the pieces of their lives strewn by the storm, the strongest in history to hit the northern Bahamas. For migrants who had no choice but to stay in government shelters after their homes were destroyed, there are no more safe havens.
This morning, immigrant advocacy groups and community activists gathered in Miami to denounce the Bahamian government's decision to renew immigration enforcement and to call on U.S. officials to act to support storm-ravaged immigrants on the islands. The event was organized by the Little Haiti-based Family Action Network Movement (FANM).
"It was like a bucket of ice water falling onto our heads," FANM executive director Marleine Bastien said of the news. "It is unconscionable for the Bahamas to plan to deport people after they've gone through such a tragic, horrible crisis... This is no time for the Bahamas government to deport people."
Days after Dorian struck the Bahamas, FANM wrote a public letter to Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis requesting the government place a moratorium on immigration enforcement until residents could fully recover. The plea seemed to work: On September 10, four days after the letter was released, the Bahamian government announced it would indefinitely suspend deportations of immigrants affected by the hurricane. Weeks passed, and then, suddenly, the indefinite became finite.
This past Monday, Bahamian Immigration Minister Elsworth Johnson told the Nassau Guardian that undocumented people taking refuge in government shelters were now subject to repatriation.
"Now, I would like to say that the hurricane has now gone, and so immigration officials are no longer being utilized to rescue persons or in a humanitarian way, and so to the extent that anybody would find themselves anywhere in the Bahamas, including Freeport and Abaco, and they're undocumented and they're found, they will be apprehended and the law will take its course," said Johnson, who added that government shelters would not be used to "circumvent the law."
It's conceivable the Bahamian government truly believes 20 days is enough for those who bore the brunt of Dorian's wrath to recover. But a cynic might say it's likelier that halting immigration enforcement was little more than a public relations move from a government already under scrutiny for its hurricane response and recovery efforts.
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"Was this a bait-and-switch? In other words, did they always intend to deport these people?" Steve Forester of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti asked at FANM's event. "It is an outrage that they would even consider it given the humanitarian catastrophe, especially a few weeks after having promised precisely not to do so."
One of the speakers at the event, Maxis Vincent, is a Haitian man whose wife died in the hurricane. Vincent says his wife's body had not even been found yet when the Bahamian government got back to asking undocumented people like him to leave. Never mind the fact that his daughters grew up in the Bahamas or the difficulties of getting up and leaving — Haitian immigrants like Vincent now must also contend with the risk of returning home to a country in the midst of crisis. A new wave of antigovernment protests has engulfed Haiti, sparking violence and a potential humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.
"It is inhumane to deport people to Haiti, which is going through one of the worst political crises in its history, with grave human rights abuses, arbitrary killings, and massacres," Bastien said in a statement.
Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Great Abaco and Grand Bahama in September, reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble and forcing thousands to flee to Florida and other Caribbean islands. The storm's death toll stands at more than 55, although it's safe to assume many of the 700 people still missing after the storm will never be found. As is the case with most natural disasters, Dorian has hit poor and immigrant communities hardest.