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The Desperate Try Island-Hopping; Thousands Migrating Illegally… People Smugglers Using DR As Stepping Stone To Puerto Rico…Immigrants Dying To Reach Better Lives Ignored

In Caribbean, The Desperate Try Island-Hopping; Thousands Of Haitians, Dominicans And Cubans Migrating Illegally Have Been Picked Up. Many In Boats Have Perished.

Ian James
Associated Press Writer

November 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

MICHES, Dominican Republic -- Ramonita de Jesus never made it to a better life. Nor did her husband, Manuel Reyes.

They drowned a year apart crossing the treacherous waters from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico -- just two among the many islanders who perish every year in the constant ebb and flow of illegal immigration across the Caribbean.

Yet the lure of prosperity beyond the horizon never dims. Over the last year, the number of boat people picked up in the Caribbean by the U.S. Coast Guard has doubled.

"There is nothing here," said Augustina Paulino, Reyes' mother, her eyes filling with tears. She said poverty and a lack of jobs drove the couple to risk the crossing -- her daughter-in-law in 2000, her son in 2001 -- leaving her to rear their three children in her wooden shack.

The dead can't be reliably counted, although they are in the hundreds over the last few years. Boat people picked up alive by the Coast Guard are at their most numerous since 1996 -- more than 5,300 in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, including about 2,000 Haitians, 1,700 Dominicans and 1,500 Cubans.

They go by motorboat, sailboat or makeshift rafts, most often bound for the United States, although the wealthier Caribbean islands also wrestle with waves of illegal immigrants.

Haitians regularly crowd onto sailboats bound for the Bahamas. Cubans pay smugglers to whisk them to the Florida Keys, and others trickle in from South America and beyond -- lately even China -- island-hopping in hopes of eventually reaching the U.S. mainland.

Most of those caught are sent home. Others reach an island undetected, often sunburned and dehydrated, and move in with relatives or acquaintances until they find work or arrange the next leg of their journey.

Smuggling operations are well established and depend on whatever the market will bear. It's $2,000 for the 100-mile passage from the Dutch territory of St. Maarten to the British Virgin Islands, one of many stop-off points for those trying to reach U.S. shores.

The fare for the Dominican-Puerto Rican run across the 75-mile Mona Passage ranges from $200 to more than $600 aboard a "yola," or wooden motorboat. Smugglers build the crafts in the coastal forests and launch them at night to evade detection by Dominican navy patrols.

More than 300 people, many of them Dominicans, have died or are missing in illegal voyages bound for Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands in the last three years, according to U.S. Border Patrol records.

But the payoff for those who make it can be great and, when night descends, the open ocean beckons the poor and desperate.

Paulino's oldest son, Ramon Reyes, was the first to leave, crossing to Puerto Rico in 1999. The U.S. territory has a large population of Dominican immigrants, often doing grueling work for low pay. Construction jobs earn Reyes enough to wire his mother about $80 every two weeks.

"I make the effort to send them something even if I don't have anything left," said Reyes, 36, who married a Puerto Rican and is applying for legal U.S. residency. "Thanks to God I made it here."

Most people have no steady work in the countryside where Reyes grew up, near the town of Miches on the northeastern Dominican coast.

His sister-in-law, Ramonita de Jesus, went down with about 40 others when their boat sank near the tiny island of Desecheo off Puerto Rico. Her body was never found.

Her husband, Manuel Reyes, tried to support their three children doing farm work, but it wasn't enough. When he decided to leave for Puerto Rico in 2001, he told his mother not to worry.

"When I go to Puerto Rico, you won't have to work because I'll send you everything," Paulino recalled him telling her. "I'll send you clothes and food for the kids."

He was among about 50 people who disappeared when their boat sank off the coast.

U.S. Border Patrol officials say the number of Dominicans detained after landing illegally in Puerto Rico has roughly doubled in the last year to 1,585. But that's well below the 3,000 caught annually in the early 1990s, when the Dominican economy was in crisis.

The numbers began falling in 1995 as the economy grew and the Coast Guard stepped up patrols.

Now the Dominican economy is stagnating again. And the peso has fallen sharply, raising the cost of even basic foods and hitting the poor hardest.

Island-hopping has long been common in the Caribbean, dictated by economics or political upheaval, or both, as the cases of Haiti and Cuba regularly demonstrate.

Today, economics appears to drive most voyages -- the temptation felt by many when they see migrants who reach the United States send back money or return to their native islands and build luxurious houses.

Patricia Pessar, an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Yale University, laments that in poor areas of the Dominican Republic, braving the sea for a better life is seen almost as a rite of passage -- "a sense that if you don't try it, you're someone without drive."

People Smugglers Using DR As Stepping Stone To Puerto Rico

By Claudio Matos

December 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003
EFE News Service. All rights reserved.

San Juan, Dec 24 (EFE).-Smugglers of U.S.-bound immigrants, especially Cubans, are using the Dominican Republic as a stepping stone to Puerto Rico, which due to its commonwealth status is an easy last stop on the way to the desired destination, officials say.

The number of Cubans traveling to Puerto Rico through the Dominican Republic has increased in recent months, Ivan Ortiz, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Puerto Rico, told EFE.

"It's one more way the smugglers have of getting them into the United States," Ortiz said, noting that 17 Cubans and three Dominicans were apprehended Wednesday while trying to land their vessel on the island's northern coast.

Five Cubans and three Dominicans leaped into the water near Cerro Gordo beach and have yet to be arrested.

"The smugglers are always looking for new routes," Ortiz said. "They also use the U.S. Virgin Islands, where some Cubans have also arrived, albeit not in significant numbers, and been arrested."

"People smuggling has been going on in Cuba for years. (Lately) they are heading for the Dominican Republic, since it's easier than going straight to the United States."

Cubans enter the Dominican Republic by air or some other route and once there, "contact the person arranging the passage by boat," to Puerto Rico, he said.

"It's obviously more lucrative taking 17 Cubans instead of Dominicans, because Cubans will pay more," Ortiz said.

Once an illegal immigrant reaches Puerto Rico, getting to the United States is relatively easy. Passengers on flights from Puerto Rico to the mainland are not required to go though customs and immigration upon entering the United States.

One of the factors contributing to a spike in immigrant smuggling at this time of year is the belief among smugglers that patrols are fewer and controls less strict due to reduced staffing, said Ortiz. He insisted, though, that that is not the case.

The number of immigrants arrested upon trying to enter Puerto Rico illegally between Oct. 1 and Wednesday has risen to 700, Ortiz said.

According to the U.S. "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain in the country and obtain legal residency, while those intercepted at sea are returned either to Cuba or the nation from which they embarked.

Leaders Largely Ignore Immigrants Dying To Reach Better Lives

Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Columnist

18 January 2004
Copyright © 2004
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The confounding winds in the Caribbean Sea have washed wayward ships onto these shores since the days of Christopher Columbus.

Last week, the same crosswinds steered eight rickety vessels, containing 178 people from the Dominican Republic, toward beaches on the western shores of Puerto Rico.

The Dominicans braved choppy seas in search of an opportunity to improve their lives. One woman, trying to flee approaching U.S. immigration authorities, jumped into the ocean and began swimming toward her destination rather than face authorities who sought to intercept her at sea.

Her body was later found near the coastal town of Aguadilla. Ironically, she washed ashore not far from where Columbus once landed.

In a development that has seemingly defied solution, the number of Dominicans making this voyage continues to grow, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Since October, for instance, the number of "boat people" apprehended leaving the Dominican Republic for Puerto Rico has hit nearly 2,000, up 60 percent from the same period a year ago.

The number of Dominican migrants who arrive without detection is much higher, federal authorities on Puerto Rico say.

One can draw a sad parallel to the rush of Mexicans entering the United States via a particularly harsh section of their border since a crackdown by U.S. authorities on illegal migration after Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, almost one person a day has died while making that desert crossing. Most of them died of dehydration or overexposure, officials say.

Exactly how many have died is unclear. Immigration activists contend 2,592 have died since 1995. U.S. immigration officials say that number should be pared back to about 1,339. Still, they say, the 409 deaths on the U.S.-Mexican border last year do indicate those numbers are increasing.

But no one argues this: The prospect of more deaths in the narrow Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic wasn't a hot topic among the heads of state gathered at the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, last week.

President Bush said only that he envisions launching "free trade" talks among the United States, the Dominican Republic and Panama as a way to boost the economic fortunes of those nations. It's about spreading economic opportunity across the hemisphere, administration officials said.

What's baffling about the situation is how little public attention we in the United States have given a problem that has become equally as urgent as the post-Sept. 11 crossings from Mexico into Texas or Arizona.

Consider that no one can account for 300 or so people who crossed between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, or nearby islands, during the past three years.

Here's the biggest difference: In Mexico, someone crossing the border can always turn back. Not so in a yola, a rickety boat used in these ocean crossings, because there are usually a dozen or more passengers making the 75-mile trip from the Dominican Republican to Puerto Rico.

The waters are very unfriendly, as well, and there is no guarantee that the winds will push the boats into Puerto Rico. Thus, some of those boats have been lost at sea.

"The large numbers of people who have died [making the crossing] is certainly something surprising," said Trevor Purcell, chairman of the Department of African Studies at the University of South Florida. "You just don't hear a lot about people making that voyage or the numbers of people who just don't make it across."

It can cost $200 to $600 for a smuggler to reserve a seat on a yola. Immigration officials acknowledge that, once in Puerto Rico, it's an easy hop to the mainland United States.

"What you're seeing is people looking for higher wages," explained Daniel T. Griswold, a trade and immigration official with the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute.

"Most of the time we hear about these kinds of boats coming from Haiti, and I can tell you the economy of the Dominican Republic, by comparison, is doing a lot better than its neighbor.

"But that isn't saying much."

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