January 12, 2012

Caribbean islands crack down on illegal immigrants

Thursday January 12 2012 Boston Sun

TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico – First, riot police raided the slum with batons and pepper spray. Then authorities shut off the water and electricity. With an eviction order pending in the courts, police stand sentry outside the shacks belonging mostly to Dominican migrants.

The Puerto Rican government says it's trying to clear a dangerous flood zone in Villas del Sol, a shantytown just west of the capital of San Juan. But residents say the show of force targets foreign laborers as Puerto Rico's unemployment rate tops 16 percent.

As jobs vanish in the global financial crisis, Caribbean governments are cracking down on undocumented migrants seeking work. The increased enforcement highlights deep economic divisions in a region where poor Dominicans, Haitians and Jamaicans seek better lives on more affluent islands such as the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbados.

And it's causing rifts among island governments, with some accusing others of violating the cooperation the region is trying to build.

"They want to scare us away," said Bianely Gonzalez, 32, a Dominican who came to Puerto Rico a decade ago on a homemade wooden boat and lives in a one-room, cinderblock home.

In the U.S. Caribbean territories and Florida, which are the biggest immigrant draw, deportations have nearly doubled from 7,176 in fiscal year 2006 to 13,622 last year.

The jump comes from a nationwide U.S. campaign to deport illegal immigrants with outstanding criminal warrants, said Ivan Ortiz, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Juan.

He agreed that enforcement is partly due to the softening American economy, but wouldn't elaborate.

Other islands couldn't provide similar deportation numbers. But the financial crisis has pummeled the islands' tourism-dependent economies, forcing hotels to close or cut back on staff. Tourist visits this year are down 9 percent in Barbados, 13 percent in the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda and 15 percent in the Bahamas, according to statistics from the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

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