Like many Bahamians who fled to Florida after Hurricane Dorian destroyed their homes, Twanette Keyser and her family are wondering how long they will be allowed to stay in the US before they are homeless once again.
Keyser, her husband, Leon, and their three young children already had visitor visas, which allow them to stay in the US for six months. But she doesn’t know if her family can return to their home, or what’s left of it, in the foreseeable future.
The small community of Great Guana Cay, a small sliver of land off Central Abaco where Keyser’s family lived, is “decimated,” she told BuzzFeed News on Monday. The infrastructure collapsed, and grocery stores, schools, and restaurants were destroyed.
Keyser believes it will take much longer than six months for the once-picturesque islet to be rebuilt.
“There is nothing left there,” she said.
Keyser said her hope now is that the Trump administration offers Bahamian evacuees like her the opportunity to live and work legally in the US, at least until there is a chance of returning home.
“I hope we’re allowed to stay because we don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.
TPS would have allowed Bahamians who were already in the US to live and work temporarily until it was safe for them to return home.
It is unclear when the decision was made, but on Monday, the acting director of Customs Border and Protection (CBP) Mark Morgan told reporters that while there had been no formal grant of TPS, it "would be appropriate to have that circumstance."
Morgan said that he was sure there would be a discussion with Trump on granting TPS to Bahamians considering it would take "a lengthy time to get the Bahamas back to where these people can return to."
But Morgan did not have clear answers on how long Bahamians would be able to stay in the US, saying, "It depends on how long it takes [the Bahamas] to recover and rebuild."
“Would that be years? Would it be months?” a reporter asked him.
Morgan repeated that the government would determine how long Bahamians could stay in the US depending on the “level of reconstruction and recovery” in the islands.
“Our first concern is the safety and well-being of [evacuees],” Morgan said. “So, now, we would not support returning people to a place where it’s not safe for them to be.”
CBP directed further BuzzFeed News inquiries to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS, Homeland Security, and ICE did not respond to requests for comment.
At least 45 people have died in the hurricane, and more than 76,000 are estimated to be homeless. The death toll, along with the number of displaced survivors, is expected to rise dramatically.
After the hurricane struck, all Keyser and her family were left with was contained in a small bag that they carried into Fort Lauderdale’s airport Saturday. They are now staying at her brother’s home in West Palm Beach, where Keyser’s mother and daughter also live.
Keyser is heartbroken about the things her family has lost to the storm: their home, their cars, their rescued cat, her children’s favorite books and toys, and all the things they brought with them when they left their native country of South Africa five years ago to build a new life in the Bahamas.
But the loss, Keyser said, “goes beyond our homes and our possessions.” Mostly, she added, she feels the loss of the life they got used to, the friends they had, and the community they belonged to.
US immigration officials told Keyser’s family they could stay in the US for six months. But Kesyer believes that it will take at least 9 to 12 months to restore power to Abaco.
“If you look at aerial footage of Guana Cay, it’s just decimated,” she said. “It’s a massive cleanup operation and I don’t know if we can go back in the foreseeable future.”
Keyser and her husband cannot work in the US because they don’t have green cards. Returning to their native country of South Africa is not an option either.
“We left South Africa because of the unstable situation and the dangers of living there,” she said. “We hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Keyser said Bahamians don’t want to do anything illegal to survive. “We’re really hoping there will be some special allowance for people like us,” she said.
The Trump administration has acknowledged the confusion in handling thousands of incoming evacuees fleeing the devastation in the Bahamas.
“So what I would say about the Bahamas is that you can imagine any type of natural disaster like this, where you have this huge disaster, a lot of resources going on and responding, there’s going to be some confusion,” Morgan said Monday.
That confusion led to 119 hurricane survivors, including children, being kicked off a US-bound ferry carrying hundreds of evacuees from the Bahamas on Sunday night. The ferry announced that only Bahamians with US visas could depart the island — and while CBP rules say that’s the case, officials told BuzzFeed News that officers in the US have discretion to let people in without one and have exercised it in the past.
Morgan said CBP did not tell the cruise line that Bahamians without documents were not allowed. “We will accept anyone on humanitarian reasons that needs to come here,” Morgan said. But he added that evacuees with criminal convictions would not be allowed to “roam freely” in the US.
“We still have to balance the humanitarian need and assistance of those that need it versus the safety of this country,” Morgan said.
CBP said it has deployed “an enormous amount of resources” to southern Florida to ensure that it can expedite processing for thousands of evacuees coming in on cruise ships, ferries, and flights.
It is an arduous, exhausting journey for those who have already lost everything.
A day before the hurricane struck, Keyser, her husband, and their three sons, ages 7, 11, and 13, left their home to live at a friend’s house, which had a stronger structure. They took only their travel documents, some clothes, and toiletries. They had no means of communication until they managed to make a satellite call last Tuesday to tell Keyser’s family in Florida that they were safe.
After the hurricane struck Guana Cay, Keyser’s friend took in 25 other people whose homes had collapsed. There was enough food and clean water for all of them. Some, like Keyser, made one last trip to their own homes to salvage what they could from fridges and pantries.
Keyser had to climb over the strewn remains of her neighbors’ homes to get to her own. Her house, unlike most others, still had a roof, but the windows had blown out. The house was full of water and debris and the furniture was destroyed.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a livable situation,” Keyser said.
On Friday, Keyser and her family managed to evacuate on a helicopter to the capital of Nassau, where most of the displaced survivors are. The city was at capacity and hotels were full, but more evacuees kept streaming in, Keyser said.
“There were groups of people standing on the streets with what’s left of their belongings in garbage bags and not having anywhere to go,” Keyser recalled.
Her family managed to fly out of Nassau on Friday on a Bahamasair flight. US immigration officials in Nassau asked them how long they were planning to stay in Florida. Keyser told them that they had lost their home. The officials said they could stay in the US for six months, stamped their passports, and let them in without further questions, she said.
For the moment, her family is comfortable at her brother’s house. But she remembers all the people they left behind who are still looking for a way to come to the US without the advantage of having family here.
“I feel blessed but also very guilty that we got off so much easier than most people,” she said. “My heart just breaks for everybody who lost everything and have nowhere to go.”
Keyser’s brother, Henk Horn, knows how desperate thousands of Bahamians are to seek refuge in the US.
Horn, a business owner in West Palm Beach, was a volunteer medical staff member on the Grand Celebration ship that brought around 1,100 evacuees from the Bahamas to Florida on Saturday as part of humanitarian relief efforts by the Mission Resolve Foundation and the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.
But hundreds of Bahamians who stood waiting in the sweltering sun all day did not make it on board.
“The sun was beating down like crazy,” Horn said, describing the scene at Freeport Harbor where the ship’s staff checked to see if the waiting mass of evacuees had the requisite travel documents to enter the US.
Horn’s medical team tended to many people who suffered from heatstroke. Babies were dehydrated and people were without their medications, like insulin. An autistic woman had a seizure, Horn said. The ship’s medical team also treated several pregnant women for heat exhaustion.
People were nervous and excited because they didn’t know if they were getting on the ship, Horn said. He said he prayed with those who had the fortune of getting on and prayed for those who were left behind.
Horn said he is now praying that the US government will allow evacuees like his sister’s family to stay in America so “they can rebuild a life and give back.”
Horn said that Bahamians are not looking to come to the US to “freeload.”
He said that instead of forcing Bahamians to live and work illegally, the US government should grant them the opportunity to become productive, tax-paying members of society.
“All anybody ever needs is an open door and they will make a success of it if they are dedicated and desperate enough,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what humanity is for.”