As Hurricane Dorian begins to slowly move away from the Caribbean, Bahamians are struggling to piece together their lives from the wreckage of the storm, which leveled entire neighborhoods on the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco. With no home to return to, many evacuees are now looking to reunite with family abroad in the United States. But that's easier said than done — obtaining legal entry to the States requires time and paperwork to which many storm-stricken Bahamians might not have access.
Wednesday, Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones called on the Trump administration and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott to work to temporarily waive visa requirements for Bahamians looking for refuge. Jones, a Democrat from Broward County, has family and friends on the islands and says the issue is personal for him.
"The islands are essentially unlivable," Jones says of Abaco and Grand Bahama. "I know officials are attempting to transport residents to Nassau, but Nassau doesn't have the capacity that we have here in the U.S. to help host Bahamians affected by the hurricane. It's my hope that the Trump administration and others in Washington, D.C., will take notice and act."
A few hours after Jones made his plea, Rubio took to Twitter to announce he would petition the Trump administration to suspend "certain requirements" for Bahamians looking to connect with family stateside.
According to State Department guidelines, Bahamians looking to enter the United States can skip the formal visa requirement if they have the correct paperwork and catch a flight that includes a security pre-clearance at U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations in airports in Nassau or Freeport. Freeport, the largest city on Grand Bahama, was pummeled by Dorian, and its airport is reportedly still flooded. So that leaves Nassau, where flights to and from the States recently recommenced. Bahamians fortunate enough to get to the airport and book a flight will still need to provide legal documents, such as a passport, as well as a police certificate issued within the past six months displaying no criminal record. According to Jones, that's where things can get tricky.
#Florida has deep ties to The #Bahamas. Many Floridians have family living there.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) September 4, 2019
Today I will be asking the Trump Administration to consider suspending certain visa requirements for citizens of The Bahamas displaced by #HurricaneDorian & with close relatives in the U.S.
"Many people lost their passports during the hurricane. They lost the identification they'd need to get into the U.S.," he says. As for the police certificate, it's unclear the number of resources the Bahamian police force, already stretched thin by emergency response work, can put toward issuing such paperwork right now.
Wait times for a visa application to enter the United States can range from two weeks to three months, and the process requires as much or more paperwork than a pre-clearance at a qualifying airport.
According to a State Department spokesperson, the U.S. embassy in Nassau is accepting emergency visa appointments and has canceled regularly scheduled interviews this week. The department has not enacted any special protocol on visa requirements or waivers thereof.
"These last few days, I've been trying my hardest to separate politics from the tragedy in the Bahamas. I do know the history of the Trump administration. But this is not about Trump, and I'm not going to put Trump at the forefront of this conversation," Jones says. "I don't know if he would care about what's going on, but for me, it's personal."
Jones says he plans to reach out to JetBlue and American Airlines to request humanitarian aid in the form of free flights from the Bahamas to the United States.
Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas this past Sunday as a Category 5 storm. It remained over the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco for two days, causing untold damages. Bahamian officials are still struggling to take stock of the full extent of the devastation left by the hurricane. The death toll from Dorian is expected to rise, and many people remain missing. Bahamians have begun using social media to try to connect with lost relatives and friends. Miami's history is closely tied to Bahamian immigration — Bahamians were some of the first people to settle the area and build the city. South Florida itself has the largest population of Bahamian-Americans in the nation.