Hundreds of Bahamian evacuees trying to fly to the United States have been turned away at the international airport in Nassau.
In addition to a passport, airline officials confirmed to the Miami Herald that U.S Customs and Border Protection is now requiring some Bahamians to have U.S. visas instead of clean police records as the agency has required previously.
Several passengers — some with visas, some without — who made it to Miami International Airport on Wednesday evening told the Herald that they are only allowed to stay in the country for two weeks. Travelers from Abaco and Grand Bahama are being subjected to extra screenings by U.S. immigration agents in Nassau, passengers and airline officials say.
Other documents CBP agents are requesting include proof of income, property ownership, utility bills, employer contact information and proof of pre-purchased return flights.
The more in-depth screenings represent a dramatic departure from the fluid immigration relationship that existed between the U.S. and the Bahamas prior to Hurricane Dorian.
“I can’t prove I own property when all my documents were carried away by the storm. They are asking me for the impossible,” said Rachel Thomas from Abaco, who was rescued from her roof amid rising waters.
Thomas was turned away by CBP on Monday because she didn’t have proof of her earnings. “How am I supposed to provide copies of my light bills when all I have left is the clothes I’m wearing?”
Before the storm, Bahamians could board U.S.-bound flights after presenting their passports and proof of a clean criminal record. Now, Bahamians hoping to evacuate to the U.S. from storm-ravaged areas, Grand Bahama and Abaco, face additional and lengthy screenings from U.S. officials, causing many to either be turned away or miss their flights Wednesday.
“Just because we were from Abaco we were separated. We missed our flight waiting in line,” said Jade Darling, 24, who arrived at MIA Wednesday on Bahamasair with her Bahamian passport and police record.
She noted that officials asked her for her boss’s name and contact information, as well as how much money she had in the bank. They also wanted to know how bad the damage had been to her house on Abaco, and noted that officials were telling passengers not to enroll their children in U.S. schools.
CBP would not comment on the situation but told the Herald the agency’s requirements for Bahamian citizens have “not changed.” How long the person is able to stay in the United States has always been at the discretion of the CBP officer and varies on a case-by-case basis, the agency said.
Typically, the default length of stay is about six months. However, CBP officers factor in several things when making their decision on how long the Bahamian citizen will get to stay.
“Each application is different and up to the officer’s discretion,” a CBP spokesperson said. “We always look at how many times the person has traveled to the U.S. and how much time they’ve spent here during the year. We factor in whether or not we believe their intent is to stay here or eventually go back.”
A CBP spokesperson referred the Herald to the Immigration and Nationality Act, which says agents can also consider a person’s assets, whether a traveler has certain communicable diseases and criminal convictions.
The Trump administration has reportedly decided not to grant Temporary Protected Status to Bahamians, which would have allowed them to work and live in the U.S. until it’s safe to return.
Four passengers who arrived in Miami from Nassau on Wednesday evening told the Herald they were only granted about two weeks in the U.S. On Tuesday, a mother looking to reunite with her 12-year-old daughter, who was separated from family at Palm Beach International Airport by CBP agents, said she was also restricted to a short stay.
“I was given until Sept. 26. How is that OK? I don’t even want to think about what I would do if I have to leave here before being able to claim my own daughter,” she said. Her daughter remains in U.S. government custody.
An attendant at MIA confirmed that around 60 people were aboard what was originally supposed to be a 120-person evening flight from Nassau on Wednesday.
“The flights that were fully booked are taking off with almost nobody on board,” a Bahamasair ticketing agent in Nassau told the Herald. She asked to not be identified for fear of being fired. “Many, many people are being turned away by CBP and we’re issuing refunds. ”
Woodrow Wilson, a senior consultant for sales at Bahamasair, confirmed that people from Abaco and Grand Bahama are facing tougher screenings.
“Normally Bahamians were able to travel without a visa once they had a police record in their possession,” Wilson told the Herald on Wednesday. Now, he said, “If they don’t meet the requirements from Border Patrol they are being turned away.”
Thomas, who was turned away and left stranded in Nassau, is now staying with pastors she met at the airport. Her ailing mother, whom she was traveling with, was also rejected by CBP officers. Thomas’ mother, Shirley, has diabetes, Alzheimer’s and chronic vascular disease. She gets treated in the U.S. regularly.
“They asked for proof that we would be returning, yet we bought full round-trip tickets,” she said.
Her bags made it to Florida, even though she didn’t.
This report was written by Monique O. Madan and Taylor Dolven of the Miami Herald.