Surge of migrants being smuggled to Puerto Rico

Illegal immigration and human smuggling aren't just a problem on the U.S. border with Mexico. It's also happening in the Caribbean, where Haitian migrants are trying to reach the United States mainland through Puerto Rico, CBS News' Miles Doran reports.

In the past two years, human smuggling cases there have tripled.

Agent Creighton Skeen of Customs and Border Protection flew with CBS News over the waters west of Puerto Rico, scanning the invisible border down below.

"I can pick up very small targets, as small as a coconut floating in the water," Skeen said. "Only traffic that goes through here is going to be commercial and sailing boats. Anything else, it's fair game."

Office of Air & Marine agents pull migrants aboard their boat.
Office of Air & Marine agents pull migrants aboard their boat.
U.S. Customs & Border Protection

Recently Skeen spotted a small boat, called a yola, racing toward Puerto Rico. On board: two Dominican smugglers and 10 Haitian migrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally. A Coast Guard cutter stopped them, arresting the smugglers and returning the migrants to Haiti.

This scenario is playing out week after week in the waters between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, called the Mona Passage. The flow of Haitian migrants moving through there has soared from just a dozen in 2011 to nearly 2,000 last year.

"That's new, and that's something we're trying to target," said Capt. Mark Fedor, the Coast Guard's chief of response for the Southeast and Caribbean. "Organized smugglers in the Dominican Republic are advertising their services to Haitians and saying, 'We'll smuggle you through the Dominican Republic, put you on a boat to Puerto Rico or to one of the islands in the Mona Pass - a much shorter journey and we can get you to the United States that way.' And I think people are responding to that."

Their journey often ends at Mona Island. Nicknamed the Galapagos of the Caribbean, the island is uninhabited, just 22 square miles of desolate, pristine paradise. It's American soil and only 40 miles from the Dominican coast, making it an ideal dropping point for smugglers.

Coast Guard patrols search the island for fresh landings, often spotting abandoned yolas scattered on the shore.

Smugglers can make it to Mona in as little as two hours, sometimes forcing the migrants to swim to whatever bit of America they can reach.

They count on being spotted and rescued by the Coast Guard, then processed by Border Patrol and in many cases released in Puerto Rico - like Federik Jean. He left Haiti for the same reason many leave: to find a better life.

Jean said that's why he paid $500 to be smuggled over in January.

"We were afraid," he said. "The boat was rocking, and everybody started screaming."

Jean did not know how to swim.

His gamble so far has paid off. Today, he lives in San Juan. Whether he stays is up to the U.S. immigration system, but many Haitian migrants aren't as lucky.

Still, they keep trying, risking their lives to reach a rock in the middle of the Caribbean - a stepping stone to the United States.

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