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Search for survivors ongoing after migrant boat sinks near Puerto Rico

A Dominican man was charged with smuggling in connection with the deadly incident.

In an image from a video, rescuers arrive where a vessel capsized north of Desecheo Island, Puerto Rico, on May 12. (U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters)

Rescuers on Friday searched a second day for survivors after a makeshift boat overloaded with migrants capsized near Puerto Rico, leaving at least 11 people dead and underscoring the dangers of a recent uptick in migration by boat to the United States.

Federal authorities in Puerto Rico on Friday charged a Dominican man with smuggling in connection with the deadly incident and he is expected to be indicted next week. No other details were immediately known.

Officials said 38 migrants — 36 Haitians and two Dominicans — were rescued and eight were hospitalized. U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection officials estimated that up to 60 people could have been on board the crude vessel. All of the known dead were women and Haitian nationals.

“We’re hoping to find additional survivors,” Ricardo Castrodad, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s San Juan sector, said Thursday night. “But it could go both ways.” Crews did not see any life jackets, he added.

A Customs and Border Protection aircrew spotted people in the water around noon Thursday, officials said. They said the boat was found about 10 nautical miles north of Desecheo Island — a patch of land in the Mona Passage, the strait between Puerto Rico and the Caribbean island that includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The survivors were taken to Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, a town in northwestern Puerto Rico, said Jeffrey Quiñones, a regional spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He said the boat departed from the Dominican Republic.

Betsy Rivera, spokeswoman for Puerto Rico’s Institute of Forensic Sciences, said it did not yet have identities for the deceased.

At least one of the victims had written a phone number on a piece of paper she carried with her, Rivera said. Officials are working closely with the Haitian and Dominican governments to locate family members and repatriate the deceased to their homeland.

Haitian authorities said they were awaiting more information from U.S. officials about the disaster. Prime Minister Ariel Henry tweeted Friday that the news of the death of 11 of his compatriots “deeply upset” him.

“I extend my condolences to the families of the victims of this new tragedy which has plunged us into mourning and plunged us into the greatest desolation,” Henry wrote.

Illegal crossings in poorly-constructed wooden boats known as “yolas” are common.

The size of the group harks back to the 1980s and 1990s, when yolas would carry anywhere from 70 to 100 migrants, Quiñones said: “Our general worry is this could replicate over the summer and this could become a trend.”

For decades, smugglers have attempted to navigate the tempestuous Mona Passage between Puerto Rico’s west coast and the Dominican Republic. They load scores of migrants onto fragile ferries that use rudimentary motors to steer past authorities and try to avoid detection. Countless lives have been lost, officials said.

“We say that the largest cemetery we have in the Dominican Republic is the Mona Passage,” said Jose Rodriguez, spokesman for the Dominican Committee on Human Rights based in Puerto Rico.

The boats, typically between 20 and 40 feet long, can be hard to detect, U.S. officials said, and it was fortunate CBP spotted the emergency off Puerto Rico’s western shore.

Smugglers build these hastily-constructed vessels with poor quality wood and nails to construct what is essentially a “floating cardboard box,” Castrodad said. Throughout the entire 80-mile journey, passengers are often forced to use buckets to bail out water and stay afloat in rapidly changing maritime conditions.

The Mona Passage may appear calm at the outset but is known to turn violent in a matter of minutes, Castrodad said.

Videos circulated on social media capture migrants arriving on popular beaches, where locals sometimes welcome and cheer them on as they run from authorities. U.S. Border Patrol agents often return any migrants they intercept immediately back to their home countries. Historically, migrants have largely been Dominican nationals but U.S. officials said they’ve seen a sharp rise in attempted crossings by Haitians since August.

In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2021, the Coast Guard intercepted 463 Dominicans and 15 Haitians. Passengers on 53 such voyages have been intercepted by the Coast Guard and its partner agencies since then — including 940 Dominicans and 298 Haitian, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard is now on track to intercept 15 times as many Haitian migrants this year as it did in fiscal year 2020, The Washington Post has reported.

“This is a constant occurrence,” said Castrodad, who recounted at least four similar rescues since Saturday. In one such incident involving 68 migrants, one Haitian woman died. “There’s lots of human smuggling activity and we are patrolling and intercepting these boats trying to get to Puerto Rico daily.”

In Haiti, deepening turmoil, including a deadly 7.2-magnitude earthquake and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year, has sent thousands fleeing to the United States — by land and by sea.

Jose Rodriguez, spokesman for the Dominican Committee on Human Rights based in Puerto Rico, said migrants in recent months have been drawn to the U.S. territory by the promise of jobs. Puerto Rico is experiencing a labor shortage, particularly in manual labor, as millions in federal funds are being disbursed for reconstruction on the island archipelago five years after Hurricane Maria.

“This is a disgrace. These people are trying to improve their living circumstances,” Rodriguez said. “And unfortunately, many of them are women who have children they can’t feed and so they take these kinds of risks.”

A spokeswoman for Pedro Pierluisi, governor of Puerto Rico, said Friday that the government laments the loss of life that occurred.

“The governor has been working collaboratively with the Dominican Republic to disincentivize these trips and supports federal immigration reform that would more justly regulate the legal entry of migrants to the U.S.,” press secretary Sheila Angleró Mojica said Friday.

Some reconstruction jobs in Puerto Rico pay as much as $15 an hour, which is more than some construction workers make in an entire day in the Dominican Republic, said Josué Gastelbondo, head of the mission for the International Organization for Migration in the Dominican Republic.

Gastelbondo estimated that 20,000 Dominicans have migrated illegally to Puerto Rico in the past three years and that about three trips leave per day to Puerto Rico. That is in part due to strong links between the Dominican Republic and the U.S.; more than half of households in the country, he estimated, receive money transfers from the U.S. dollar.

“All Dominicans have a family member in the U.S.,” he said.

Joseph Mike Lysias, of the Support Group to Repatriates and Refugees in Haiti, said the social, political and economic situation in the country has disproportionately impacted women.

“There are no opportunities for women here in Haiti,” he said. “They fear being kidnapped in the streets.”

In addition to the dead, the majority of the survivors were women, CBP officials said.

“What we are witnessing is the feminization of migration,” said Romelinda Grullón of the Puerto Rico-based Center for the Dominican Woman, adding they have seen increasing numbers of women making the perilous journey alone. “The poor are getting poorer and they are desperate to liberate themselves from their situations.”

Many of them do not qualify for visas, are sexually assaulted by their smugglers and have experienced some level violence at home or in their communities, she said.

Human rights officials said the Dominican Republican is a transit point for many Haitians who either stay to save money for the trip or stop there before heading for the United States.

Rodriguez, the community leader, estimated there are nearly 300,000 Dominicans of different immigration statuses living in Puerto Rico, representing a potent political and economic force on the archipelago. About 10 percent of them are undocumented and supply cheap labor to various economic sectors on the island but often face abuse and low wages, he said.

Rodriguez blamed government officials in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic for the conditions that can lead to such deaths.

“I am making a call to those people who are thinking about making that trip, please don’t do it this way,” Rodriguez said. “Because this is what happens.”

Hannah Knowles and María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.