Early Monday afternoon, acting Customs and Border Protection head Mark Morgan offered some peace of mind to Bahamians seeking humanitarian relief in the United States in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, following the news that some were turned away for not having visas.
“This is a humanitarian mission,” Morgan assured. “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.” He said the processing would be handled expeditiously.
Then President Trump offered a very different message.
In a later Q&A with reporters, Trump emphasized that “very bad people” could exploit the process and warned against welcoming Bahamians.
“We have to be very careful,” Trump said. “Everybody needs totally proper documentation. Because, look, the Bahamas had some tremendous problems with people going to the Bahamas that weren’t supposed to be there.”
The president added, “I don’t want to allow people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States — including some very bad people and very bad gang members.”
So, shortly after Morgan said people didn’t need to have documents, Trump said they did. And shortly after Morgan emphasized a quick process, Trump suggested it would need to be very thorough.
The president’s comments shouldn’t be a surprise. This is his default response, after all, to accepting people into the United States on humanitarian grounds. He did it during the 2016 campaign, arguing against welcoming refugees from Syria and even calling for a complete ban on Muslim immigration. When he came into office, he privately railed against a deal between the Obama administration and Australia on taking in other refugees.
More recently, this has been Trump’s attitude toward asylum seekers, suggesting that gang members and even terrorists are exploiting the process to gain access to the United States.
Trump emphasized Monday that, “believe it or not,” many parts of the Bahamas were not hit hard by Dorian, suggesting the humanitarian need isn’t that great. The capital of Nassau and southern parts of the Bahamas sustained significantly less damage.
His comments, notably, suggest not just that some refugees are gang members but that they might pose other problems. He even seems to suggest that people might have gone to the Bahamas so they could pose as refugees to gain admission to the United States. Trump has often spoken in this manner about potential terrorists. It’s not clear whether he was saying they went to the Bahamas before the hurricane or somehow got there afterward.
The Bahamas, notably, contain many people of Haitian descent -- as many as 1 in 10 residents -- and they tend to be among the island nation’s poorest residents. Trump has in the past privately referred to Haiti as a “shithole country" while deriding protections for immigrants from it.
Other Republicans — particularly in Florida — have taken a more compassionate tone when it comes to welcoming Bahamians. “As hundreds of thousands of Bahamians seek refuge or start to rebuild after Hurricane Dorian, we cannot have the kind of confusion that occurred last night in Freeport,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has encouraged Trump to waive some visa requirements.