Haiti migrants braving sea in rickety boats add Puerto Rico as way station trying to reach US

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Haitians have fled their troubled country for years, attempting to reach the U.S. or other Caribbean islands by heading north across the open sea or trekking across the island of Hispaniola to scratch out a living in the Dominican Republic.

But a newly popular route has caught officials in the Caribbean by surprise, one that is taking migrants to a piece of the U.S. much closer to home.

Hundreds of Haitian migrants have made their way to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in recent months, finding that if they can make it there without getting arrested, it's relatively easy to fly on to U.S. cities such as Miami, Boston or New York without even having to show a passport.

"As soon as you're in Puerto Rico, it's like you're in the United States," said Lolo Sterne, coordinator for Haiti's Office of Migration.

There are no official statistics on how many Haitians have successfully made their way illegally to Puerto Rico, or how many have traveled on to the U.S. mainland. But the trend worries officials in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, with both countries reporting a jump in arrests of Puerto Rico-bound Haitians.

Migrants reportedly are paying smugglers $1,000-$1,500 for a trip to Puerto Rico, located less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. At the same time, Dominican officials have detained more than 400 Haitians bound for Puerto Rico in the past four months, compared with just a handful annually in previous years, said Victor Pilier, the Dominican Republic's director of naval intelligence.

"It's an excessive amount," said Pilier, who oversaw the capture of 78 Haitians headed to Puerto Rico in late April before sending them back home. "It's unusual."

U.S. officials in the past six months captured 352 Haitian migrants who were bound for Puerto Rico or were found on or near the island. Coast Guard statistics show that between October 2010 and September 2011, only 13 such migrants were found, and at most five Puerto Rico-bound Haitians were arrested in the two years before that.

"We're seeing another route they're trying to exploit," said Coast Guard Capt. Drew Pearson, who is based in Puerto Rico. "We hadn't seen these numbers of Haitians in my tenure here."

The odds of reaching the U.S. mainland directly from Haiti have dropped as the U.S. Coast Guard beefs up patrols by Hamilton class cutters, or what Haitian migrants simply refer to as "Amilton." Along with trying to sail directly to the U.S. mainland, Haitians in the past attempted to get to the United States through long-established smuggling networks on islands including the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.

"Miami is no longer easy to reach and that's why Haitians are looking for other places," said Walky Severian, a boat builder in western Haiti who himself has taken three voyages, including one in 2008 that ended up in Cuba because of stormy weather before he was deported.

Pilier, the Dominican naval officer, said migrant smuggling to the U.S. territory has also become common because Dominican authorities have a harder time patrolling the nation's southeast coast, which is closer to Puerto Rico and where many smugglers have started launching from.

"We have a stronger presence in the north," he said. "The east is more vulnerable."

On top of that, a thriving underground economy in Puerto Rico that has long offered employment to Dominicans is now attracting Haitians.

For Haitians hoping to get to the U.S. mainland, the island of 3.7 million people has a black market that supplies fake passports, driver's licenses and stolen Social Security numbers. In addition, the island's governor in early March endorsed a proposal to allow immigrants living illegally in the U.S. territory to apply for a provisional driver's license. Pilier said that proposal has in fact drawn many migrants to Puerto Rico.

In March, U.S. federal officials rescued 71 Haitian migrants stranded on a cluster of islands just west of Puerto Rico, dehydrated and with bruises and scratches. The rescue came a week after 67 migrants from Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were found in the same cluster of islands, including a Haitian woman who died.

On the black-sand beach in the fishing village of Leogane west of the Haitian capital, groups of men build wooden migrant boats, sawing and hacking away with machetes and picks. The 30-foot-long boats, whose frames resemble the rib cage of a small dinosaur, are purchased by smugglers for around $12,000 and then taken to northern Haiti to find passengers. One boat builder said he has four or five regular customers who buy the crafts.

Many Haitian farmers lost their crops during last year's hurricane season, causing food supplies to drop and prices to rise in a country of 10 million people that is still recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake.

The number of Haitians who don't have enough to eat to maintain a healthy diet has grown from 1.9 million at the end of 2009 to 6.7 million today, said Myrta Kaulard, the country's director for the United Nations' World Food Program.

"Migration is a very important coping mechanism," she said.

Nasere Severian, a 48-year-old boat builder, himself took three unsuccessful trips to Miami in the 1990s when political instability in Haiti drove out-migration to a peak of 37,618 in 1992, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.

"Sometimes we build two or three boats a year," Severian said. "At the same time we can go a year without getting a customer."

Then Severian offered this: "If it were easier to reach Miami I would try to go there every day — even if that means I die."

In another major migration trend, Brazil also has become an increasingly common destination for Haitians since the 2010 quake. The South American nation initially opened its doors to Haitians seeking asylum, then later said it would issue 1,200 visas annually to allow them to work there for a five-year period. More than 4,000 Haitians have moved to Brazil, both legally and illegally, since the disaster.

Etienne Brutus, a 26-year-old unemployed father of three, was among the 78 Haitian migrants caught leaving the Dominican Republic last month, en route to Puerto Rico.

He spoke in Spanish to The Associated Press by telephone while sitting on a bus full of migrants traveling from the Dominican Republic's southeast coast to the capital of Santo Domingo for processing before being driven back to Haiti. Dominican authorities provided an AP reporter with the cell number of a naval officer, who then passed the phone to Brutus. But the signal was weak, making it impossible to obtain more than a few details about his situation.

Brutus said that when he approached smugglers about leaving Haiti, they told him they weren't traveling north, and that their only destination was east to Puerto Rico. He agreed to make the trip, and crossed into the Dominican Republic for the sea voyage.

"I don't have work, I don't have a room, I'm hungry," he said of his life in Haiti. "If I can get to Puerto Rico, amen. If I can get a room, a job and papers, I'm leaving."


AP writers Danica Coto reported from San Juan, and Trenton Daniel reported from Port-au-Prince and Leogane, Haiti.