Reports Wednesday that the Trump administration will not grant the same legal protection to Bahamians as their island nation recovers from Hurricane Dorian were met with some confusion given that humanitarian history. But the news was familiar in other ways, the Migration Policy Institute’s Doris Meissner told The Washington Post — a seeming continuation of Trump officials’ efforts to cut back a program that grants temporary U.S. residence to more than 300,000 people from 10 countries.
“It was both expected and unexpected,” said Meissner, who directs the Washington-based think tank’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program. “Generally, under circumstances like this really catastrophic hurricane … TPS would be granted.”
News of the Bahamas decision, which government officials have not confirmed to The Post, comes a day after members of Congress introduced a bill to give citizens of the Bahamas the special status — and two days after acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan said a TPS designation for the country would be “appropriate.”
“But at the same time, this administration has made it very clear that it thinks that TPS has been overused,” Meissner told The Post.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to inquiries.
Since 1990, the United States has allowed foreigners who are already present when dangerous conditions develop in their home country and protected status is declared to stay and work in America for up to 18 months. That timeline can be extended if unsafe conditions continue, and many TPS recipients have built lives here over years as their countries of origin struggle to recover.
But officials have decided against TPS for Bahamians because of unspecified “statutory obstacles,” the time relief would take and the number of people whom the policy would cover, according to CNN, which cited an unnamed member of the administration.
Meissner said she is not sure what statutory issues could block TPS status, calling the designation “one of the most straightforward and quite simple things that an administration can do.” And, she said, the population who could benefit is relatively small: The Migration Policy Institute estimates that about 33,000 Bahamians live in the United States, mostly in Florida, while the biggest TPS designation, for Salvadorans, covers 195,000 people.
But the concerns about the length of a country’s prospective recovery would not be new. The Trump administration has argued against TPS extensions, saying that home conditions have improved and that Haitians, for example, should not get to stay in the United States nearly a decade after the earthquake that led to protected status.
Efforts to kick TPS recipients out of the country have brought protests and legal challenges, though, as opponents say the administration’s policies will tear families apart and send people back to countries in no shape to receive them. A class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other plaintiffs pointed to emails between Trump appointees and diplomats who protested that countries had not sufficiently recovered.
Those arguments have found support from judges, who repeatedly blocked TPS cutbacks: Earlier this year, the government said it would extend protected status for a quarter of a million immigrants from four countries — El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua — following a federal court order, though another court has shown a willingness to rethink. And a judge last year described “serious questions” over whether DHS decisions were “influenced by the White House and based on animus against nonwhite, non-European immigrants in violation of Equal Protection guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The Trump administration could be loath to take in more foreigners who could stay years while the Bahamas rebuilds, Meissner said, though she added the country seems positioned for a quicker recovery than poorer nations such as Haiti.
“The thinking is that once you get into a program like this, you don’t get out of it, no matter what,” she said.
Critics see the reported Bahamas decision as further evidence of a broad hostility in the administration to immigrants, pointing to the president’s focus on “bad people” in the Bahamas when he discussed hurricane relief measures earlier this week.
Asked whether he would support a TPS designation, Trump said that “we’re talking to a lot of different people on that,” but he went on to air concerns about “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and … drug dealers” who could come to the United States from the Bahamas.
The comments drew comparisons to the president’s past statements about Mexican immigrants.
“His response is not about how badly the Bahamas are battered, not about whether the Bahamas would be safe,” said Karen Musalo, a professor and director of the center for Gender and Refugee Studies at U.C. Hastings College of the Law. “It’s always a demonization of people.”
Members of Congress who backed Tuesday’s bill advocating TPS status for Bahamians had strong words, too.
“He’s really a bigot in chief,” said Sarah Sinovic, a spokeswoman for Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), who introduced the legislation. “He has an anti-immigrant agenda, and that trickles down into all the policies that he’s trying to enforce.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Clarke’s bill accumulated 25 co-sponsors within a day, Sinovic said. But news of the administration’s latest decision-making has thrown a wrench in the initiative.
Clarke is “frankly disappointed but not surprised,” Sinovic said.
Scrutiny of the TPS decision comes after concerns erupted Sunday over displaced Bahamians who were turned away from a ferry to Florida, an incident that Customs and Border Protection blamed on the boat’s operator. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have urged the government to let refugees of Dorian bypass all visa rules to find safety in the United States.
“If your life is in jeopardy and you’re in the Bahamas … you’re going to be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not,” CBP commissioner Morgan said in his response to the controversy.
But “we still need to vet you to make sure we’re not letting dangerous people in,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security’s website still outlines visa requirements for citizens of the Bahamas, saying the U.S. Embassy in Nassau is open for emergency appointments about documents.