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Unlawful Bids To Enter Puerto Rico Are Soaring


December 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Apprehension of illegal migrants trying to make it to Puerto Rico has soared as smugglers in the Dominican Republic use the threat of the impending Homeland Security restructuring as a recruiting tool.

The smugglers' tactic has dramatically increased the number of people risking their lives aboard flimsy wooden boats, even as authorities now systematically repatriate virtually all would-be immigrants interdicted at sea. Puerto Rico, as a U.S. territory, is bound by the same immigration laws as the mainland.

One boatload that arrived in Puerto Rico over the weekend included eight Cubans. Six Dominicans also were apprehended. At least one Dominican woman drowned when the vessel capsized, and three boat captains, thought to be Dominicans, got away. The group told authorities they had paid up to the equivalent of $800 a piece for a space on the 16-foot wooden boat known as a yola.

The smugglers warn potential migrants, many seeking to flee economic hardship, that it will become more difficult to enter the United States illegally after the Border Patrol and Coast Guard become part of the new Department of Homeland Security, which becomes effective in March.


The result: Since Oct. 1, authorities in Puerto Rico have apprehended 1,203 migrants primarily on smuggling boats from the Dominican Republic. During the corresponding period in the last fiscal year, there were 61 apprehensions, according to the Border Patrol. Of the migrants seized since October, 567 were intercepted on the high seas and repatriated.

During the entire 2002 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a total of 835 migrants were taken into custody -- all on land.

The repatriation policy is the result of the Bush administration's attempt to treat all immigrants ''the same'' following a controversy sparked by the Oct. 29 boatload of Haitian migrants who jumped overboard in Biscayne Bay near Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway.

The Haitians' indefinite detention and expedited removal stirred cries of discrimination among immigration advocates, who complained of unequal treatment.

The Bush administration responded by applying a standard detention and deportation policy to all migrants except Cubans, whose status falls under the Cuban Adjustment Act.


Only Cubans who make it to U.S. soil automatically qualify for residency. Migrants from most other nations can request asylum but have a difficult time obtaining it.

In Puerto Rico, migrants caught in territorial waters formerly were brought to shore and placed in removal proceedings. That process would take several days and allow those seeking to stay an opportunity to state their claim to immigration officials.

Now, most migrants fall under ''expedited'' removal, which typically results in automatic return to their homelands.

''The notion of treating people with dignity and respect is out the door because of the terrorism threat,'' said Irwin Stotzky, a professor of law at the University of Miami and director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights. ``This violates protocol relating to the status of refugees.''

Authorities said U.S. law already provided the ability for speedy repatriations but was not fully applied until after the incident involving the Haitians.

''The policy was already in effect but we're doing it across the board now,'' said Victor Colón, an assistant Border Patrol chief in Puerto Rico. ``Since that occasion, the repatriation process has been made uniform. It helped clarify issues that were in gray areas.''

Cubans interdicted at sea get an opportunity to claim political asylum aboard Coast Guard vessels, but few have been successful at demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution if returned.

The winter is typically a low season for human-smuggling trips by sea. But recruiters with a network operating from Nagua, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, have apparently been successful at persuading desperate voyagers to journey across the treacherous Mona Passage in high seas.

''They're telling them that this is the time to go, that if they wait longer it will be more difficult because of Homeland Security,'' Colón said. ``We're trying to bust this group. They are real well organized.''


Homeland Security, including the Border Patrol, Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is a new government department established in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The consolidation, intended to better coordinate agencies' efforts in the war on terrorism, has created a perception that security will be heightened along the United States' land and sea borders.

Herald writer Larissa Ruiz Campo contributed to this report.

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