“We have to be very careful,” Trump told reporters Monday afternoon when asked about the incident. “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. 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 some very bad gang members.”
Those comments came just hours after the head of Customs and Border Protection said Bahamians fleeing for their lives would be allowed into the United States. They seemed to solidify what some observers worried was the case after the initial reports about the disembarkation: That this was a reflection of the president’s previously expressed hostility to allowing people from largely black countries to enter the United States.
The groundwork for those sentiments was laid in 2018, when The Washington Post reported on Trump’s frustration during work with lawmakers toward a bipartisan immigration deal, including discussing protections for immigrants from Caribbean and African countries, nations with large populations of black people.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he said, according to these people, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.
In the president’s opposition, he singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, attendees said.
“Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. “Take them out.”
There’s a somewhat firm tie there. The Bahamas is one of the richest countries in the Americas, according to the World Bank, so it’s not likely that it would count as one the poor nations that Trump referred to profanely. But the country’s relatively healthy economy does make it a destination for those fleeing Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
As many as one in 10 Bahamians are Haitian migrants. They tend to be among the island nation’s poorest residents. That’s probably whom Trump was referring to when he talked about “people that weren’t supposed to be in the Bahamas.”
The reality of ferrying the migrants to the United States is apparently complicated, involving multiple U.S. agencies, private ferry companies, and a government in the Bahamas struggling in the wake of disaster. The Post previously reported that current U.S. policy toward Bahamians allows them to enter the country without a visa by providing a passport and proof of no criminal record. They must also go through pre-screening conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Freeport and Nassau. Customs and Border Protection officials say nothing has changed regarding that.
At a news conference Monday, acting CBP commissioner Mark Morgan said there was “confusion” around the issue and documentation would not be required to enter the United States.
So there are lots of questions surrounding the best way to get migrants to the United States. But hearing Trump lean on what seems to be a default position on accepting refugees, in the midst of a natural disaster, is a reminder that few things will come to define the Trump presidency more than his language about and perception of people of color.