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They're Foreigners In A 'Foreign' Land


July 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.


LIGHT OF HER LIFE: Enerolisa Paredes kisses daughter Adriana María named after a Puerto Rican social worker who helped her.



SAN JUAN - For two days across the treacherous Mona Passage, Enerolisa Paredes prayed, clasped the wooden slab beneath her until her fingers went numb and kept her eyes tightly shut until the canoe-like vessel packed with other Dominicans finally made landfall.

But the most intimidating part of the harrowing journey came as a shivering Paredes hid beneath the thick brush that grows along Puerto Rico's western coast, barely breathing, for fear that U.S. Border Patrol agents searching nearby would find her.

''I could see them and hear their footsteps,'' said Paredes, 26. 'There was a cow that kept stepping all over me. I kept thinking, `God, please don't let them see me.' ''

Eight months later, Paredes has become the mother of a newborn girl who is entitled to the same U.S. benefits as Puerto Ricans. The two have become part of a flourishing immigrant community whose growth is fueling tension between locals and the newer arrivals.

Dominicans have been using Puerto Rico as a stepping stone to the U.S. mainland for years, but with increasing vigilance over illegal immigration to the continental United States, a more permanent community has settled here.

An estimated 250,000 of Puerto Rico's population of 4 million, or one out of every 16, are Dominican. Although hard data does not exist, officials estimate that about 10,000 immigrants enter annually, and more than half stay.

The overwhelming majority of illegal entrants are Dominicans who venture across the Mona Passage in smuggling vessels known as yolas.

For Puerto Rico, where at least 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, accommodating the newcomers is a challenge.

''We are doing what we can to address the needs,'' said Mariana Binet Mieses, director of the Department of State's office of Orientation and Services for Foreign Citizens. ''The biggest problem is that most of the immigrants here are not documented,'' making it difficult to enroll them in government-funded programs.


The culture clash between locals and foreigners has become apparent with numerous allegations of discrimination over the years involving police, employers and government service operators.

But the most sensitive complaints surround educators accused of altering Dominican students' grades to keep them behind, punishing them more severely and even barring them from eating in the cafeteria or drinking from the water fountain ''because they might get them dirty,'' said Pedro Ruiz, director of San Juan's municipal Office of Immigrant Services and Civil Rights.

Even though most of the claims are difficult to prove, the perception that Dominicans are unwelcome has fostered resentment among many in the immigrant population.

''If you are Dominican, you don't get treated the same,'' said Rafael Tejeda, a grocery store owner who has lived here for 20 years. ``You can feel it just from walking in through the door of government offices and businesses owned by Puerto Ricans. Even the homeless will say that being in the streets is better than being Dominican.''

Tejeda, who lived in Miami for five years before moving to Puerto Rico, became a U.S. citizen in 1990. Still, he is making plans to sell his successful business and return to his homeland.

''The majority of Dominicans here don't really want to be here,'' Tejeda said.

The two nationalities actually share similarities in food and arts, for example, but the pronunciation of words in the same Spanish language can be world's apart.

As temporary stays become more permanent, Dominicans are slowly gaining clout by launching successful businesses and filling low-wage positions in restaurants, agricultural fields and other manual labor sectors.

''There is a little bit of jealousy because Dominicans take jobs that Puerto Ricans don't want,'' said Iris Figuereo, a vice consul at the Dominican Consulate. ``People complain that Dominicans are taking over. Racism does exist here.''

Not everyone agrees.

Paredes said that when she arrived in Cabo Rojo in the southwestern coast, she turned to a Puerto Rican family for help. The family took her in for a few days, clothed and fed her. Then they drove her into San Juan.

There, she found a job taking care of two disabled Puerto Rican children, earning enough to pay $50 a week for a room at a cramped apartment. And when she began to weaken from hunger and pregnancy, it was a Puerto Rican social worker who came to her rescue. She even named her daughter, Adriana María, after the social worker.


''I am very grateful to the Puerto Ricans,'' Paredes said. ``They have helped me more than my own people.''

Among the latest concerns expressed by community leaders and the Puerto Rican government officials who help them is the apparent rising number of pregnant Dominican women arriving in yolas.

''We are seeing a lot more of that,'' Ruiz said.

More than half of the 49 Dominicans on Paredes' trip were women. Although she was among only four people who slipped away, smugglers tend to have a better success rate.

The Border Patrol Sector here is understaffed by at least 15 agents, and it estimates many more Dominicans get away than they apprehend.

''If we get anywhere from 10 to 11 percent, we're doing great,'' said Antonio Solis, lead intelligence agent.

In two recent separate landings, only 10 of an estimated 30 immigrants were apprehended. According to figures from the Dominican Republic, authorities there destroy some 25 to 30 yolas a month to prevent them from going out to sea.

Paredes, who arrived on Nov. 1, had to borrow about $1,000 to pay for a trip that should have taken only a day.


Paredes said she contemplated the risks involved for a month before deciding she had no other choice.

''My mom was sick and I didn't have money for the operation; I did it for her,'' she said.

Paredes, who has two other children in the Dominican Republic, is the eldest of 15 siblings. The entire household shares a two-room wooden shack, and her meager earnings as a school janitor did little to help care for the family.

''Things are very critical over there,'' she said. ``My brothers and sisters are like my children, too, because I have to help provide for them.''

``My mom told me not to leave because she was afraid I would drown. But I said, well, it's my life. I'm going to die at some point. What does it matter if it is here or there?''

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