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Busy Times In Mona Passage…Surge In Migrants Puzzling

Dominican Exodus Forces U.S. Deployments

By Paisley Dodds

February 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

ABOARD THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER KEY BISCAYNE · Slicing through whitecapped swells between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter patrolled last week for Dominicans trying to reach U.S. shores.

Authorities caught about as many Dominican boat people in January as they did in all of last year, signaling a new desperation in a nation struggling through its worst economic crisis in decades.

The surge has prompted the United States to deploy more ships and aircraft in the Caribbean, where short-staffed agencies are expected to do search-and- rescue missions, hunt for drug traffickers, protect fisheries and guard against terrorist threats to cruise ships and oil refineries.

"We're seeing something like we've never seen before," said Coast Guard Lt. John Morkan, 35, aboard the St. Petersburg based Key Biscayne cutter, which arrived last month with its 18-member crew on a 35-day deployment in the Mona Passage.

"The means of migrant smuggling have stayed the same, but we're seeing a lot more from the Dominican Republic," Morkan said.

A decade ago, it was a Haitian exodus that helped spur a U.S. invasion of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. Despite the violence and worse economic conditions in Haiti, Dominicans last month began fleeing in far greater numbers and overtook Haitians as the largest number of boat people in the region.

Dominican President Hipolito Mejía's popularity has plunged as his people have watched the value of the peso lose more than half its value in the past year and prices of gasoline and food nearly double.

The national debt, meanwhile, has ballooned from $3.7 billion at the end of 2000 to $7.6 billion in December.

Scandals have scared away investors. Last May, one of the largest banks collapsed and two others nearly went bankrupt when investigators discovered executives were using shadow companies to give themselves millions of dollars. An estimated $2 billion was reported lost.

But politics rarely spill below deck on the Coast Guard cutters, whose crew members pass time popping sea sickness tablets, smoking and watching films such as Pirates of the Caribbean.

To avoid detection and protect the crew's night vision, the cutters use only red bulbs to illuminate cabins at night. Smokers take clandestine drags as colleagues take shifts watching the radar.

There is no easy explanation for the recent surge in migrants -- about 1,500 intercepted in January compared with 180 in December -- but authorities say smugglers have become better organized and people more desperate. Through all of last year, the Coast Guard detained 1,469 Dominicans.

Another reason could be that Dominicans saved dollars sent by relatives in the United States at Christmas, allowing more to pay the $225 to $500 demanded by smugglers to cross the 70-mile waterway that separates the Dominican Republic from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Two weeks ago, the Coast Guard intercepted about 350 Dominicans crammed aboard two wooden motorboats called "yolas." Normally, boats carry a couple dozen people. When caught, the boat people are returned home.

If they make it, Dominicans often find work in Puerto Rico as maids, taxi drivers and construction workers, jobs that pay four times more than back home.

It is not known how many make it, nor how many die in the attempt.

The Coast Guard says 21 Dominican boat people have died since Oct. 1.

Migrants often set out at night aboard rickety wooden boats painted blue and black to mask them from helicopters. The journey can take days.

Francisco Miranda, 47, was one of the lucky ones. Leaving from Miches, 75 miles east of Santo Domingo, he set out on a 40-foot yola with 79 people in 1990.

He paid $125 for the journey and took two days to reach Puerto Rico. He said three people died on the way.

``You lose your senses out there. The waves are huge. People were vomiting, going to the bathroom,'' said Miranda, now back home after being deported.

``You could pay me and I wouldn't go again.''

Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic contributed to this report.

On the Net:
U.S. Coast Guard Migrant Statistics:

Surge In Migrants Puzzles Island

More Dominicans Sail For Puerto Rico

MATTHEW HAY BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

January 24, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

AGUAGDILLA, Puerto Rico - -- Authorities are stepping up patrols off the west coast of Puerto Rico to meet an unexplained surge in boat people fleeing the Dominican Republic for this U.S. Commonwealth.

In a single day this week, the Coast Guard intercepted two boats dangerously overstuffed with 190 migrants attempting the dangerous journey across the Mona Passage. That made 420 stopped at sea in a week, and 844 for the month - more than half the total during all of last year.

On land, meanwhile, authorities have arrested 921 undocumented aliens since Oct. 1 - more than four times the number rounded up during the same period last year.

Undocumented Dominicans long have used this Spanish-speaking territory as a back door into the United States. They may pay smugglers more than $500 to sneak them onto the island, where they may disappear into the large Dominican community in San Juan, working off the books in low-paying jobs that locals won't take, or travel onward to the mainland United States.

The reasons for the current exodus remain unclear. With a slumping economy going into presidential elections this year, the Dominican Republic has seen general strikes and sometimes violent clashes between protesters and government forces.

President Bush, meanwhile, described proposals earlier this month to extend legal recognition to some undocumented workers in the United States.

"I know that politically it's starting to pick up in the Dominican Republic, and economically it's very difficult," said Victor Colón, assistant chief of the U.S. Border Patrol for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. "As of right now, I don't see anything that would indicate that, hey, we're getting a big push because the president made this speech."

While they continue to investigate the causes, authorities say closer cooperation among agencies now consolidated under the Department of Homeland Security, along with improving communications with their Dominican counterparts, is helping to snag more migrants.

The 921 arrested on land in the four months since Oct. 1 is already more than half the 1,688 for all of the previous year. The 1,725 intercepted at sea since Oct. 1 is closing rapidly on the 1,789 for all of the previous year.

"Bringing agencies with similar missions together has allowed them to share resources, intelligence and personnel, " said Iván Ortíz, a spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

More than 60 migrants are known to have died in the last four years in the Mona Passage, which authorities say ranks among the roughest stretches of water in the world. Given the periodic discovery of battered, empty boats, the actual toll is believed to be much higher.

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