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Hundreds Of Dominicans Cross To Puerto Rico To Earn Christmas Money

November 30, 1988

AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Hundreds of Dominicans are risking their lives boating across dangerous waters to find jobs in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico so they can send money and presents home for Christmas.

″Do you know how sad it is to approach Christmas with children and family and have nothing to give them to eat, no clothes, not even a ball? It breaks my heart,″ said Dominican fisherman Ramon Antonio Sanchez.

Sanchez was one of 232 Dominicans caught by authorities in a five-day period that began last Thursday.

Officials say it is the largest number arrested in Puerto Rico’s history and that the number of people attempting the passage has increased in the weeks before Christmas.

An untold number make it across the treacherous waters of the 90-mile Mona Passage, which separates the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico’s western shores.

Border Patrol Chief Joe B. Bennett estimates only about 10 to 15 percent of those entering the island are caught. He said 2,617 Dominican aliens have been arrested since April.

Bennett said the federal agency, set up a year ago to deal with the growing problem, lacks resources and manpower to guard 30 miles of Puerto Rico’s western coastline.

″This is too big an area to handle with what we’ve got″, said Bennett.

He said the Border Patrol has only 17 agents, two boats and one plane, but that police and U.S. Coast Guard often pitch in.

″We don’t expect it to stop before Christmas,″ he said.

In addition to a poorly guarded coastline, Dominicans are encouraged to make the trip because so many are sheltered and fed by Puerto Ricans, Bennett said.

To discourage the travelers, the Dominican government has run TV warnings about drownings and vicious sharks eating people whose boats capsize.

But they didn’t deter 30-year-old Sanchez.

He and a group of 45 Dominicans were caught over the weekend after their boat smashed against a reef near Mona Island, midway between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

He said his group spent all their money to build a wooden ″yola,″ as the fragile motorboats are called. Sanchez said a bleak economic picture this holiday season prompted the group to flee the Dominican Republic, where inflation has risen about 60 percent and unemployment climbed to 30 percent in the last year.

Sanchez said he would risk the trip again given the chance.

″If hunger is going to kill me, I prefer to be killed escaping, or be eaten by sharks because what I want to do is work, but there are no jobs there,″ he said.

Nidia Marmolejo Torres, 29, ventured the trip wearing just shorts and T- shirt. She said she needed to feed her five children and was hoping to work as a maid or picking coffee beans.

″I was willing to risk my life for this,″ she said. ″I see my children suffering and it’s killing me.″

Many Dominicans sell their refrigerators, ovens, TV sets to come up with the $500 to $3,000 that organizers demand for the trip.

U.S. officials say thousands of Dominicans who make it to Puerto Rico then go to the United States, where about 1 million Dominicans live. Entry is easier from the commonwealth because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and have American passports.

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