SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Thousands of people from the Dominican Republic, driven by poverty to seek a new life in the United States, are crossing the treacherous Mona Passage in small boats to Puerto Rico.
No one knows how many Dominican boat people have drowned crossing the 75-mile, shark-infested passage that separates Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, an even more impoverished country.
The passage claimed at least 13 more victims Christmas week when the 28-foot boat they were in capsized a few hundred yards off Puerto Rico's western shore, 75 miles from San Juan.
Survivors told police the boat was overloaded with more than 40 people intent on illegally entering the United States through the Puerto Rican back door. Police detained 16 others who made it ashore, but another two dozen were unaccounted for and either drowned or eluded police.
The tragedy focused attention on what has become a major problem for immigration officials trying to stem the tide of illegal aliens.
"This is not the first time that a boatload of Dominicans has sunk and it won't be the last, but I'm sorry that this has happened, especially during the Christmas season," said William Bryan, deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's San Juan office.
James H. Walker, regional director of the INS in San Juan, estimates that an average of 1,000 Dominicans enter Puerto Rico each month. The number is slightly higher during the winter when the Mona Passage is relatively calm.
INS Plans New Station
The INS will open its first Border Patrol station outside the continental United States this summer on Puerto Rico's west coast.
Walker said he could use 50 agents at the station but will have to settle for six or seven. The station will have 100 beds for detainees awaiting deportation or permission to remain in the United States.
Walker has 24 INS investigators to deal with illegal aliens in Puerto Rico and the neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands, 40 miles to the east. He has asked for 10 more.
The Puerto Rico situation is reminiscent of the wave of Haitian boat people who drowned in the early 1980s trying to reach the Florida coast. The surge of Dominicans crossing to Puerto Rico started about the same time but received less attention until recently.
Immigration officials estimate that at least 150,000 Dominicans, and maybe as many as 300,000, are living in Puerto Rico, which has a population of about 3 million.
Illegals Blend In
Once the illegals reach San Juan, they easily blend in, especially since they are ethnically similar to Puerto Ricans.
The Dominicans, used to working for less than $1 an hour, accept jobs spurned by Puerto Ricans because they pay only the $3.35 federal minimum wage. The jobless rate in this U.S. commonwealth is almost 18%; more than half of Puerto Rico's population receives food stamps, and many are on welfare.
In the Dominican Republic, which has a population of 6.6 million, unemployment and underemployment combined are about 40% of the work force.
Walker said the smuggling of illegal aliens into Puerto Rico has become a big business, with rates ranging from $500 to several thousand dollars.
No Passports Required
Those who pay are taken to San Juan, housed in a hotel and placed on a plane to New York. Relatively few Dominicans are caught at the San Juan or U.S. airports because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and no passports are required for the flight to the U.S. mainland.
The others risk the Mona Passage. Often they never make it to Puerto Rico but are dumped on Mona Island, an dry, uninhabitable island in the middle of the passage, 40 miles from Puerto Rico's west coast.
They usually are given food by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, which mans a small research station on the little island, taken by helicopter to the west coast city of Mayaguez and placed aboard a ferry for the trip back to the Dominican Republic.
Less fortunate aliens are dropped on even smaller uninhabited islands in the Mona Passage, where they are stranded without food for several days until picked up by the police or Coast Guard patrol boats.