While U.S. immigration agencies grapple with a recent surge of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants at the Mexican border, the number of Haitians trying to enter the U.S. illegally through Puerto Rico has skyrocketed as well.
In 2011, only 12 Haitians made the trek through the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean Sea. That number had ballooned to 1,760 as of last year, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, CBS News reports.
“That’s new, and that’s something we’re trying to target,” Capt. Mark Fedor, the Coast Guard’s chief of response for the Southeast and Caribbean, told CBS.
“Organized smugglers in the Dominican Republic are advertising their services to Haitians and saying, ‘We’ll smuggle you through the Dominican Republic, put you on a boat to Puerto Rico or to one of the islands in the Mona Pass – a much shorter journey and we can get you to the United States that way.’ And I think people are responding to that,” he said.
The Dominican smugglers often drop their Haitian charges off at Mona Island, an uninhabited Puerto Rican island 40 miles off of the Dominican coast in the Mona Pass.
“As soon as you’re in Puerto Rico, it’s like you’re in the United States,” Lolo Sterne, coordinator for Haiti’s Office of Migration, told the Associated Press last year.
Once in Puerto Rico, the illegal Haitian immigrants are able to fly to destinations in the U.S. without having to show a passport. All they need is a driver’s license, according to the Associated Press.
The new route through the Mona Pass is seen as more desirable as the U.S. Coast Guard has increased patrols of normal routes taken by immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As the AP points out, it has become more difficult to travel directly to the U.S. mainland or through Miami, which has historically served as the choice destination for illegal immigrants from the Caribbean.