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Dominicans Risk Caribbean Passage

October 24, 1999

AGUADILLA, Puerto Rico (AP) _ They cram into flimsy wooden boats, dozens per 20-foot craft. For days they motor across the Mona Passage, burned by the sun, sickened by the sea _ fetid ships of urine and sweat, hunger and thirst. If they make it to shore, they must muster the energy to avoid arrest.

It’s coffee harvest time in Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central, and for many citizens of the Dominican Republic, fall’s annual rite of passage has begun. In recent weeks, dozens have braved the perilous 75-mile Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to find work.

Puerto Rico may be just a U.S. territory, but that’s close enough _ a far more prosperous place, and a beachhead from which the Dominicans hope to make their way to the U.S. mainland. There are few immigration or customs controls en route.

``Think about going on a boat day and night, for two or three days. That’s very scary. The people here are very determined,″ said Norbert Gomez, assistant chief of the U.S. Border Patrol station at the old Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla on Puerto Rico’s northwestern coast.

``When they hit the beach, after what they’ve been through, they don’t want to give up.″

In a recent two-day period, two yolas _ small wooden boats _ evaded patrols and made it to the west coast. Border Patrol agents and Puerto Rican police were able to find only 16 of the 61 Dominicans estimated to have been on board. Forty-seven other more Dominicans were arrested after being spotted on a boat 4 miles offshore.

The two incidents taxed a Border Patrol force of roughly 30 agents whose jurisdiction includes all of Puerto Rico, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands to the east.

In recent years, detentions of illegal migrants have fallen as U.S. agencies, including Coast Guard and U.S. Customs air and sea patrols, have been diverted to fighting drug smuggling, officials say.

From a high of 4,363 Dominicans detained by the Border Patrol in fiscal year 1994, only 1,244 were detained in 1998 and 1,405 in 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization Service says. Thousands more have been detained at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, Puerto Rican police and, to a much lesser extent, the Dominican navy.

The exact number of those evading detection is unknown. While 28 boats were intercepted in fiscal year 1998, 83 eluded patrols. Some 118 more landed in Puerto Rico in fiscal 1999. All told, more than 5,000 Dominicans are believed to have slipped into Puerto Rico in the past two years.

For an average $640 fee, migrants place their lives in the hands of smuggling rings operating out of eastern Dominican towns. Few trip organizers are caught, fewer still prosecuted, since they stay in the Dominican Republic. Most hire boatsmen for each journey eastward.

For Dominicans fleeing poverty, there is no guarantee they’ll make it. Dozens are believed to drown each year in the Mona Passage.

``I wouldn’t recommend the trip to anyone,″ said Juan Carabello Gonzalez, an 18-year-old detained after what he claimed was his third attempt to reach Puerto Rico.

``This was it. I won’t try anymore. I’d tell Dominicans not to bother with the yolas,″ he said.

Carabello and other detainees get the option of immediate voluntary departure _ which won’t affect their future chances for a legal entry _ or fighting deportation in the courts.

Those who do slip ashore join a burgeoning Dominican community that over the decades has encountered its share of resentment and discrimination _ but also boasts many success stories.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 Dominicans live in Puerto Rico, a tiny fraction of them illegally, said Julio Cesar Santana, the Dominican consul general in San Juan.

Many have become doctors and lawyers or joined other professions. Their children attend schools and universities.

Newer arrivals take up jobs as coffee pickers, maids, gardeners, street vendors _ low-paying jobs Puerto Ricans don’t want, said Cesar Rey Hernandez, an immigration specialist at Sacred Heart University in San Juan.

Dominicans have rescued abandoned neighborhoods, especially in San Juan’s Santurce commercial district, and run restaurants, bars and other businesses once owned by Puerto Ricans.

Yet time and again, they are blamed for robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution and other crimes.

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