Bahamians in need should be allowed to seek refuge in Florida until they can rebuild

AP Photo/Ramon EspinosaA man cries after discovering his shattered house and not knowing anything about his eight relatives who lived in the house, missing in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, in High Rock, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, Thursday.

Let our kindness not end at donations and delivery of relief supplies to the Bahamas.

In the same way that after catastrophic Hurricane Andrew in 1992 people living in South Dade moved to points north to find shelter until they could rebuild, Bahamians should be able to find refuge in Florida.

They have family and history here.

They are not “foreign nationals.”

They are neighbors.

They should be welcomed here with open arms.

Allowing Bahamians easy travel to stay with family in the United States is common sense relief for the thousands left homeless by Category 5 Hurricane Dorian. The storm of 185 mph winds and gusts of up to 220 mph decimated the Abacos and Grand Bahama islands.

The Bahamian government hasn’t yet asked for it, but President Donald Trump and his administration should make the option of temporarily relocating people here official as soon as possible.

And there’s no better suited elected official to press the president on this issue than his long-time, unwavering ally Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The governor should be encouraging an open-arms policy — not deflecting the issue of Bahamian travel to Florida, as he did during Thursday’s briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

“When you’re foreign nationals, that has to be done consistent with whatever the federal policy is and we’ll see how that shakes out,” DeSantis said. “Those are not my decisions to make. “

But let’s examine his history.

It’s not DeSantis’ role, either, to intervene in U.S. policy toward Cuba and Venezuela — and he does it all the time, whether it’s meeting with the opposition in the governor’s mansion or opining on military intervention. In fact, DeSantis used foreign policy as a major — and most effective — campaign prop.

It’s also not his role to turn local and state agencies into surrogates of the federal ICE and Border Patrol — but DeSantis did so with the anti-sanctuary legislation he pushed as a campaign promise and the Legislature approved during his first session as governor.

It’s not consistent — and all too convenient now — for immigration hardliner DeSantis to dub Bahamians “foreign nationals” and differentiate them from Puerto Ricans who are U.S. citizens.

Neighbors are neighbors.

Floridians are rushing to help the Bahamas, a former British colony, with the same urgency and commitment with which we stepped up for Puerto Rico and Haiti.

What you call the dispensation that allows them to take up shelter with family here until they get back on their feet and rebuild — visa waiver, humanitarian parole, or TPS — is irrelevant.

This is not about immigration. It’s about disaster assistance.

Some facts: Bahamian travel to the U.S. for the purposes of business, travel, family visits, and tourism is already fairly easy.

According to a bilateral agreement, in certain circumstances, many Bahamians and citizens of the British overseas territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands don’t require a visa to travel to the United States, Department of Homeland Security guidelines say.

All they need is a Bahamian passport, proof from a police station that they have no criminal record, and pre-clearance from U.S. customs and immigration at stations in Nassau or Freeport. The time of stay, however, is defined as “for short duration,” which would pose a problem for those waiting out the rebuilding.

Bahamians are pioneers in Florida.

They settled in Key West, Miami, and the Fort Lauderdale area in the 1800s — and helped build the railroad and bridges that brought others to South Florida. Many people here trace their ancestry to the Bahamas, an independent country within the British commonwealth since 1973.

Bahamians love their archipelago and eke out a living largely through tourism in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes. That their government would prefer for them to all stay to work on rebuilding is a fine aspiration but is naive in the face of reality.

Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Bahamian American with family in the Bahamas who represents West Park — the Broward area Bahamians first settled — has asked the Trump administration to waive visa requirements for those affected by Hurricane Dorian.

And Florida’s U.S. senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have sent President Donald Trump a letter asking the administration to do so for Bahamian citizens displaced by Hurricane Dorian with close relatives in the United States.

“…perhaps one of the most basic yet meaningful steps our government can take immediately is to ensure that those who have lost everything, including family members in some instances, are provided the opportunity for shelter and reunification with family in the United States,” the letter says.

Governor DeSantis should put aside his politics and join Jones, Rubio, and Scott in their request to the president.

Giving sanctuary to neighbors suffering devastating loss is another way to help the Bahamas recover.

And Florida is best-suited for the role of neighborhood refuge.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”

 

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