Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2019

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Eye of the storm: Americans can’t remain silent on hurricane relief

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, tens of thousands of homeless Bahamians live in crisis, trapped amid rubble and human remains.

Once again, a catastrophic natural disaster has devastated a Caribbean island and our federal government has failed to respond to humanitarian needs. By turning our backs on this human suffering, we undermine the very foundation of our own cultural heritage and the American way of life.

Bahamians have long enjoyed a special relationship with the United States, with the ability to enter the country with no more than a passport and a clean criminal history. Moreover, the U.S. has the legal means to help affected Bahamians in the face of disaster. Temporary Protective Status, established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, allows foreign nationals to travel to the United States in the wake of environmental disasters that result in a substantial disruption of living conditions.

Following the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador, and after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998, former republican and democratic administrations in Washington, D.C. extended Temporary Protective Status to those suffering foreign nationals.

We have the means to help Bahamians. But do we have the will? And if so, what’s in it for the U.S.?

As a society, we cling to the concept of American exceptionalism — that the U.S. is unique among nations because it was founded on the ideals of individual liberty, private property rights and justice for all. It’s a belief anchored in our democratic idealism and collective humanity. By failing to respond to the crisis just 90 minutes off the coast of the mainland U.S., we imperil our moral standing and weaken our ability to advocate for human rights on the world stage.

Sadly, this is not this administration’s first such lapse. In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, resulting in a significant death toll and billions of dollars in damages. Puerto Ricans have every right to expect the full backing of their federal government as they continue to rebuild their economy. 

Shamefully, Puerto Rico did not get timely or comprehensive support from the U.S. government. The administration’s response was not remotely comparable to its immediate and sustained response to Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. However, conservative reports indicate that more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans fled to the mainland U.S. for safety and comfort in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Now we are witnessing the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas with the full force of sustained Category 5 winds. Once again, our government’s response is not in keeping with the American values we teach our children. It was widely expected that the government would extend Temporary Protective Status to Bahamians fleeing Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, allowing those displaced by Dorian to seek shelter in the U.S. These Bahamians remain stranded and imperiled today.

Washington’s recent responses to hurricanes in poorer Caribbean islands should compel every American to speak out. We must offer Temporary Protective Status to Bahamians who survived Hurricane Dorian and expedite Puerto Rico’s delayed recovery from Hurricane Maria. Washington’s failure to do so should have each of us questioning whether we have lost our collective humanity.

Our failure to immediately extend Temporary Protective Status to our Bahamian neighbors is just as un-American as our failure to support post-Maria Puerto Rico as fully as we supported Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

This indifference exposes a definitive bias and raises the question of whether the very concept of American exceptionalism is at risk of slipping away. If we allow the current administration to persist in this failure, we risk turning ourselves into a nation of “selective humanitarians.”

Uri Clinton is an executive in the resort industry and is chairperson of the board of the social service nonprofit Nevada Partners Inc. He is the former general counsel of the Baha Mar resort in Nassau in the Bahamas.