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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Officials: Migrations To Puerto Rico Surge

Rumors Set Off Wave Of Migrants

By Matthew Hay Brown

May 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico -- More than 270 people have been captured in the past week trying to sneak into Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic, bringing to more than 2,400 the number of illegal migrants caught trying to make the dangerous sea crossing since October.

This latest surge of Dominicans, most crossing the shark-infested Mona Passage in handmade wooden boats, apparently was spurred by rumors that the Coast Guard was withdrawing from Puerto Rico after the U.S. Navy formally closed its bombing range on Vieques island on May 1.

Like the Dominicans caught before them -- and likely hundreds more who eluded capture -- they are drawn to this U.S. commonwealth by economics, authorities said.

"Everybody's got a little less money in their pockets," said Lt. Heath Brown, deputy chief of law enforcement for the Greater Antilles Section of the Coast Guard. "It's economic reasons, and the weather's good, and they just keep coming."

The arrests Monday of seven Dominicans at Punta Borinquen on the northwestern coast of Puerto Rico brought to 1,158 the number detained since Oct. 1, said Victor C. Colón, assistant chief of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The interception Tuesday of 22 more on a 25-foot yola, an open wooden boat, northwest of the Isla de Desecheo in the Mona Passage brought to 1,255 the number stopped and turned around on the high seas.

Federal and local agents caught 835 land arrivals during the entire previous year. The number intercepted at sea was not immediately available, but was said to be less than in the current year.

The number of interceptions and detentions represent only a portion of those attempting the journey. Authorities say they have no way of knowing how many get past them -- or how many die trying.

But they say that improved coordination among agencies, owing in part to a reorganization of several under the new Department of Homeland Security, has allowed them to stop a greater percentage.

"We're in more communication than ever," Colón said. "We all have a common mission right now."

In the past week alone, authorities have intercepted 228 migrants on the sea and arrested 46 on shore. At least 41 more are thought to have eluded capture.

As on past occasions, the exodus seems to have been spurred at least in part by a rumor circulating in the Dominican Republic. A passenger on board a 20-foot yola stopped by the Coast Guard during the weekend told immigration officials that he and his fellow travelers thought that the withdrawal of the Navy from Vieques meant the Coast Guard would stop patrolling the channel between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Officials try to quell rumor

Officials on both islands have moved to quell the rumor. Colón has appeared on Dominican radio to dispel it, and the Coast Guard and other agencies are planning to step up patrols in the Mona Passage until would-be travelers are convinced.

"We're going to keep our nose in until this basically one-a-day interception rate quiets back down," Brown said.

The latest wave of arrivals comes as the Dominican Republic suffers rising prices and mounting job losses.

Protesters have taken to the streets this year to demand cheaper food, electricity and gas.

President Hipolito Mejia has asked Dominicans to accept austerity measures including a tax hike and cuts in the public payroll.

Trip can last 4 days

Dominicans may pay smugglers more than $500 to sneak them into Puerto Rico aboard a yola built on the beach for a single journey.

The trip, which takes 11 hours by conventional ferry, may last up to four days as the captain zigzags across the channel to avoid patrols.

Once in Puerto Rico, the migrants are on U.S. territory. Some head to San Juan to disappear into the capital's large Dominican community.

Others continue on to the mainland United States.

Many send money home to family in the Dominican Republic, and some travel back themselves.

With conditions for travel improving, Colón is bracing for more attempts in the coming weeks.

"It's typical for this time of year," he said. "We know the seas are better. We're going to see more yolas."

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