The Trump administration should start by getting its messaging straight. The acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Mark Morgan, has signaled to survivors that the agency would exercise its discretion to allow them to enter the United States even if their documents were incomplete — a reasonable gesture given that many Bahamians might have lost passports or been unable to access visas or other papers in the storm’s chaotic aftermath.
President Trump’s own messaging has been discordant and characteristically counterproductive. Immediately after the storm wreaked havoc on the islands, he pledged U.S. help with recovery efforts and said, “We’re working hard, we’re with you, and God bless you.” Then, in Trumpian fashion, he pivoted a few days later, warning that “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers” residing in the Bahamas might sneak into the United States. Hence, said the president, “We have to be very careful.”
News outlets reported this week that “temporary protected status” — the program that allows foreigners who are victims of wars and natural disasters to remain and work in the United States rather than return to their home countries — would not be considered for Bahamians. The government of the Bahamas has made no formal request that TPS be extended for its citizens already in the United States, perhaps not wanting to antagonize Mr. Trump, who has tried to end the program for Haitians, Salvadorans, Hondurans and others living in the United States who are beneficiaries.
Mr. Trump’s abiding hostility toward people seeking short- or long-term refuge in this country cannot be allowed to befoul the unusually close business and family ties between the United States and the Bahamas. South Florida is home to a large Bahamian community, and U.S. tourists regularly flock to the islands. Bahamians generally do not need visas to visit the United States, providing they have valid passports and clean police records.
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans, have asked that the Trump administration allow Bahamians to live with their relatives in the United States while they rebuild their lives at home. That would be a good start — in effect, it appears to be in line with what Mr. Morgan said authorities are already doing. A bigger-hearted version of that approach would also grant temporary work permits so that hurricane survivors could sustain themselves in the interim and, in the process, contribute to their families and the local economy.
With the possible exception of Canada, the United States enjoys no relations with any close neighbor as friendly and frictionless as those with the Bahamas, reachable by boat from South Florida in a couple of hours or less. The administration’s response to the cataclysm wrought by Dorian should be commensurate with the strength of those ties.