PA1 John Gaffney  /  U.S. Coast Guard
Wrapped in blankets, 91 Dominican migrants bed down for the night on the Coast Guard Cutter Decisive in the Mona Passage on Friday after they were intercepted during a smuggling voyage.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/11/2004 7:41:28 AM ET 2004-02-11T12:41:28

The call that another overloaded Dominican immigrant boat had been spotted by air came at dusk, just after the dinner mess call.

As the crew prepared for a night rescue in rough conditions last week, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Decisive sliced through 10-12 foot waves, heading as fast as it could for the interception point.

Even with a full-moon sky, and crisscrossing spotlights from the cutter and a helicopter hovering overhead, the wooden motorboat was hard to see -- a tiny blue-and-white speck tossed about by the angry sea and stiff winds.

But, as the Decisive drew near, the scene became ominously clear: a 35-foot wooden motorboat, known as a "yola" with 91 desperate migrants crammed aboard, was easily in danger of capsizing.

"The wind is rising, the waves are rising. The potential for disaster...is very high," Lt. Commander Dave Strong said.

Dominican exodus
This and other recent incidents have U.S. officials concerned about a dramatic increase in illegal migration from the Dominican Republic to U.S. shores in Puerto Rico.

In January alone, the Coast Guard stopped 1,541 migrants, more than in all of last year.

The exodus is blamed on the deteriorating Dominican economy with its skyrocketing inflation, rising unemployment, banking scandals, and disruptive power outages.

A two-day national strike last month left six reported dead in clashes with security forces.

Seeking jobs and a better life in Puerto Rico -- and perhaps eventually the U.S. mainland --Dominicans set sail in yolas across the treacherous Mona Passage, where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea collide.

The most direct route is 60 miles, but the trip is often much longer, and in foul weather can take days.

The seas in the Mona Passage often become very rough. Even on a calm day it can take just a couple of hours for six to eight foot waves to kick up. Fifteen-foot waves, even higher, are not uncommon. A small boat trapped in mid-passage can easily get in trouble.

No one knows how many migrants have perished in these waters, but 21 fatalities were reported in January.

The rescue
Aboard the Decisive, the decision was made to launch two small rescue boats to approach the overloaded yola, a delicate operation in rough seas.

After fitting all the migrants with life preservers, in case their vessel capsized, the rescue crews began to gingerly remove the migrants six or seven at a time, ferrying them back to the cutter.

Many of the passengers were in bad shape, suffering from exposure. All were wet, and cold, and some were dehydrated.

One woman was barely conscious, her hands shaking uncontrollably. "She's hypothermic, probably seasick at the same time, and she's freezing cold," guardsman Harold Schofield said.

"They don't get much food out there, so they get dehydrated, and they're malnourished. Conditions aren't good," he added.

All of the the migrants were searched, and required to remove their hats, shoes, socks, belts, and jewelry. After being processed by Spanish-speaking crewmembers, they were each given blankets and sandals, and were led to the flight deck where they were fed, and would spend the rest of their trip under guard.

Toward the end of the rescue, a handheld radio blared, "One migrant is passed out."

In response, an officer shouted across the crowded deck to the medical team, "Hey, doc, we got another customer for you, a migrant passed out. Six more coming, one of them passed out."

Smuggling routes
U.S. authorities said many of the yola trips are coordinated by organized smuggling rings, which charge an average of $500 apiece for the trip.

The smugglers almost never provide food, water or safety equipment for the wooden boats.

"It's pretty clear from the way they outfit the boats, the way they overload the boats, that they don't have a whole lot of regard for the safety of anybody aboard them," said Capt. Kurt VanHorn, the Decisive's commander.

In January, U.S. law enforcement officials found a 40-foot Dominican yola grossly overloaded with 245 migrants aboard. The sides of the boat were only inches above the water line.

"Any large wave could have capsized it. It was an accident waiting to happen," said John Gaffney, a Coast Guard spokesman.

Despite these concerns, the smugglers are rarely prosecuted, in part because migrants are reluctant to reveal who among them piloted the yola, and won't name -- or simply don't know -- any of the trip organizers.

As U.S. officials increase the number of patrols in the Mona Passage, they said they will try to build more federal smuggling cases in Puerto Rico.

However, aboard the Decisive, while there was a widespread belief this latest boatload was, indeed, the work of smugglers, there was insufficient proof to make any arrests.

The current exodus from the Dominican Republic is certainly not the first such occurrence. There have been other spurts of illegal immigration in past years.

But, this crisis comes at a time when the United States is most concerned about protecting its borders in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The efforts to stem the migrant flow are now being coordinated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the agencies involved are the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Border Patrol, the Puerto Rican police, and the Dominican Navy.

Endless Cycle
After spending two nights aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Decisive, the Dominicans removed from the yola were returned home.

Just off the coast of La Romana, the two small Coast Guard rescue boats transported the migrants to a Dominican Navy patrol boat.

For some of the boatpeople, this was not their first experience with repatriation.

Crewmembers aboard the Decisive said some of them were already wearing Coast Guard-issued sandals when they were rescued -- suggesting they had been intercepted before during previous illegal trips.

U.S. officials said they believe many Dominican migrants are so desperate to escape the poverty of their homeland that they are willing to repeatedly risk the perils of an uncertain sea.

"It's a very dangerous undertaking," Capt. VanHorn said of the migrant exodus. "You're taking your life in your hands every one of these trips. It's just a very poor idea."

NBC's Mark Potter was on assignment covering the U.S. Coast Guard in the Mona Passage. He was not allowed to interview migrants interdicted at sea while they were in Coast Guard custody.

Video: Dominicans flee to U.S.

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