- Associated Press - Monday, May 6, 2013

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — 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 United States 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 to $1,500 for a trip to Puerto Rico, located less than 100 miles  east 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 Mr. 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 within the past six months have 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.

Mr. Pilier 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 long has 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. Mr. Pilier said that, in fact, proposal drawn many migrants to Puerto Rico.

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