The flow of Haitians sneaking into the Bahamas is turning into a flood that is straining social services and bringing calls for mass deportations.
The development also worries U.S. officials, who fear it might be a forerunner of a new surge of Haitians trying to get into the United States to escape their nation's dismal economy and political instability.
Bahamian authorities estimate that 60,000 Haitians are living illegally among the 360,000 citizens of this island chain, which lies between Haiti and Florida. The military, which has increased patrols at sea, said 4,220 Haitians were caught last year -- the highest number in a decade and nearly 50 percent more than were stopped in 2001.
Over the years, some Bahamians welcomed the Haitians as a source of cheap labor, but there is a growing chorus demanding that the government crack down and send the migrants back home.
"They use our hospitals, our social system, they clog up our schools and take away from Bahamians," said Theodore Roberts, a 31-year-old technician. "They just keep coming and don't give back anything."
Officials say one-third of public school students are children of Haitian migrants and seven of 10 maternity patients are Haitian.
Fearing an exodus like that in the 1990s, when Haitians were fleeing a murderous military dictatorship, the United States is helping the Bahamas with increased aid and U.S. Coast Guard patrols.
"When Haitian immigration picks up in the Bahamas, it picks up in the United States, too," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman, Brian Bachman.
Bahamian officials say Washington needs to provide more help.
"Migration is everybody's business," said Immigration Minister Vincent Peet. "We don't think the world should allow the Bahamas to deal with this by itself."
Most Haitian migrants leave from their country's barren north, paying smugglers $500 to $5,000 for passage to the Bahamas. The journeys are usually made in rickety homemade boats that sometimes capsize. It's not known how many have died trying to escape.
In November, the bodies of four men believed to be Haitian migrants were found floating in Nassau harbor, near the dock where cruise-ship tourists shop in duty-free stores. Some migrants are abandoned on one of the Bahamas' more than 700 uninhabited islands, where they stay with no water or food until someone finds them, dead or alive.
Those who make it undetected to a populated island endure poverty not that different from what they knew in Haiti. They squeeze into ramshackle villages without running water or electricity on the outskirts of Nassau or another city.
In one shantytown, residents said they are in constant fear of police raids. The poorly dressed Creole speakers are easy to spot in this relatively wealthy English-speaking country.
"If the police catch us, they'll rob us," said Raymond Marcellin, 28, flashing a large gash in his palm, an injury he said he got from a fall while running from the police.
The Haitians live in hope of earning enough to pay for a trip to the United States. They take jobs not wanted by educated Bahamians, such as gardening, cleaning hotels and homes, and laboring in construction.
The Bahamas repatriated more than 3,000 Haitian migrants last year, at a cost of more than $1 million. But despite the growing public complaints, the government has no plans to deport large numbers.
"It's a failed policy because it has not stemmed the tide," Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell said of deportations.
He said officials are exploring new ways to tackle the problem, such as granting guest worker visas and forging closer ties with the Haitian government.
Many people concede that Haitian migrants will keep arriving as long as Haiti's problems persist.
"There is a lot of misery," said Louis Joseph, Haiti's ambassador to the Bahamas. "When people are suffering, they'll leave any way they can."
In a Nassau detention center, Pierre Joseph sits in a pink tank top and orange swim trunks, waiting for word on when he'll be sent home.
During a five-day, 100-mile journey, he and seven other men endured a storm that nearly tore apart their homemade sloop. When a Bahamian Defense Force boat stopped them near shore, all were limp from dehydration, heat exhaustion and seasickness.
"I wasn't afraid to die because I knew I had to leave," said Joseph, a 27-year-old potato farmer. "There's no hope in Haiti."