Alternate Routes by Sea and by Air and Sea

Like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands are a territory of the United States and provide a point of entry for undocumented migrants en route to the mainland. Dominicans fly or island hop to St. Martaan and other islands, then connect with smugglers who transport migrants by speed boat or pleasure craft to isolated Virgin Islands beaches, such as those on the East End peninsula of St. John. The migrant groups are usually of mixed nationalities. In June, 2008, for example, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) conducted random inspections of passengers travelling on the ferry between St. Thomas and St. John and arrested migrants from Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, St. Vincent, Ireland, and Sri Lanka. These migrants had arrived by island hopping or by transit through European countries. The 2010 Operation Island Hopper, also in the Virgin Islands, resulted in the apprehension of sixty-six Dominican, Haitian, Cuba, Brazilian, and Guyanese migrants.

Another route that originates in the Dominican Republic uses the Bahamas (Grand Bahama is about seventy miles off the coast of Palm Beach) or the Turks and Caicos as transit points to Florida. The vessels are typically twenty-five or thirty foot pleasure craft that easily blend in with other recreational boats; the captains are Bahamian and American. In April, 2010, two Bahamian pilots were arrested at Cibao International Airport in Santiago for attempting to smuggle five Dominicans to the Bahamas. The service would have included subsequent transport by boat from the Bahamas to Florida. The passengers carried valid Dominican passports and forged Bahamian work permits. An investigation revealed that this smuggling operation had previous organized about six trips from the Dominican Republic to Florida via the Bahamas.

These trips contributed to activity along this route in 2010. In February, a Dominican and four Haitians were arrested in the area of Sewall’s Point, Florida; and in April there were at least three events: a sportfish vessel en route from Grand Bahama to Palm Beach was interdicted with a Dominican among Jamaican migrants; a Bahamian vessel that had left Freeport en route to Florida was interdicted at sea by CBP off the coast of Palm Beach, carrying fourteen Dominican and Jamaican migrants; and eleven Dominicans landed at the north end of Jupiter Island, dropped off near shore by a Bahamian vessel. Unknown successful landings are of course not reported.

Earlier, in 2008, eleven migrants on an American-registered aircraft departed from the Cibao airport en route to the island of Mayaguana, near the Bahamas, where they likely would have been transported to Florida by sea. The pilot was flying with a student’s license and the plane crashed an hour after departure.

Another alternate route, unusual because of the distance, goes directly from the Dominican Republic to south Florida. One of the captains I interviewed expressed interest in this route and in 2011 the Dominican navy disrupted a Miami-bound voyage, but trips to Florida require navigational skills, engine power, and gas-storage capacity well beyond those of the typical migrant vessel in the Mona Passage.

On October 24, 2008 an old wooden freighter departed from the north coast of the Dominican Republic with forty-two passengers—four of them Brazilian and the rest Dominican—and eight days later the boat ran aground on a sandbar near Fischer Island, just south of Miami Beach. The boat tipped to one side and most of the migrants jumped out and swam for shore; some were rescued by a local fisherman who then reported the incident. More migrants jumped and swam as Miami police and the Coast Guard approached.  The weather was windy, the surf was rough, and the migrants, having been at sea for several days with little water and food, were weak. Six passengers died in the attempt to reach shore. The others, including the captain, were apprehended by federal agents on the vessel and ashore in Key Biscayne and Virginia Key. The captain, who was sixty-two at the time of arrival, stated that he was originally a passenger but later agreed with the Dominican organizers of the trip to pilot the vessel in exchange for a reduction of the smuggling fee (from an original $5000 to $500). He pleaded guilty to alien smuggling that resulting in six deaths and was sentenced in June, 2009, to nine-and-a-half years in prison. [1]

Dominicans also migrate to Dutch Caribbean islands (such as Aruba, Curaçao, and St. Maarten), establish legal residency, and after a five-year period qualify for Dutch citizenship and passports. The passports are valid for residence in any European Union country, and Dominicans use them primarily to settle in Spain. The Netherlands participates in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, so Dutch passports can also be used for easy entry into the United States. Acquisition of Dutch citizenship became more difficult beginning in 2011; it now requires fluency in Dutch as demonstrated on a civic integration examination. This measure is characteristic of anti-immigrant legislation and enforcement throughout the European Union. In March, 2011, Greece chartered a flight—the first deportation flight in its history, to any country—to deport seventy-three undocumented Dominicans.


Some stowaways from the Dominican Republic board cargo vessels at port (often the Haina port, near Santo Domingo) and others board at sea. The same occurs upon arrival; some ride the vessel until it docks and others jump off within swimming distance to shore. In a recent stowaway event, migrants evaded Dominican port security by floating to a freighter on tire innertubes. They boarded with a heavy bamboo pole fitted with a grapple hook and rubber grips wrapped on the pole at intervals. In more sophisticated operations, stowaways hide in containers that are rudimentarily refitted. In June, 2010, a container vessel arrived to Charleston, South Carolina from the Dominican Republic. Several stowaways fled from a container that had a hole in the top for entry and exit, and two were apprehended. A third was found dead inside the container.[2]

Barges, which usually have no crew on board, are particularly convenient for stowaways. Boardings to search for stowaways are sometimes done randomly in harbors as barges approach port, and other searches are done in response to calls from the masters of vessels, who are required by law to report stowaways. In December, 2008, the Coast Guard in Mobile, Alabama, searched a barge pursuant to a call from a tugboat captain, and four Dominicans were found. In May, 2010 a captain heading for New Orleans reported stowaways hiding in the vessel’s life rafts. And in a 2003 incident, four Dominicans paid approximately $5000 each to Filipino smugglers for passage on a ship traveling from Haiti to Louisiana. The captain discovered the migrants, the Filipinos were charged with alien smuggling, and the Dominicans were repatriated.

Migrants also hide in the anchor pockets of vessels and swim ashore before landing. A similar tactic, though highly dangerous and rare, is done by air. In March, 2004 a Dominican stowaway was found in the landing gear of a plane that arrived at Miami International Airport. The man somehow arrived unharmed, despite the below-zero temperatures en route. In a yet more desperate and creative scheme, also in 2004, a Cuban woman in her early twenties shipped herself by DHL from the Bahamas to Miami. She was discovered by DHL workers inside a plywood box about the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet. Under the wet foot/dry foot policy, the woman was paroled into the United States and eligible for permanent lawful residence.

Small Aircraft

On occasion Dominican and foreign nationals travel by general aviation or on small charters that make unauthorized landings in Puerto Rico. These flights are required to file flight plans, provide advanced passenger information, and report to CBP upon arrival; if they do not they are suspected of smuggling. One tactic used by migrant smugglers is to file a flight plan to one Puerto Rican airport, deplane the undocumented passengers at another, and then continue to the planned airport for inspection. In a recent case a plane approaching Puerto Rico dropped below radar, landed in Mayaguez to drop off a Cuban, then continued to the scheduled airport.

Other migrants are smuggled from the Dominican Republic to the Virgin Islands by private aircraft. In January, 2010 a pilot from the United States escaped after two of the five passengers planning departure on his charter from Santo Domingo were detained and questioned by migration authorities. The pilot had represented that the plane was destined for Punta Cana, but the questioned passengers eventually revealed that they had paid to be smuggled to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Via Mexico

Some Dominican migrants enter the United States between ports of entry on the southwest border, hiring coyotes to guide them across. According to Border Patrol statistics for FY 2009, about five hundred Dominicans were apprehended at the southwest border. The travel originates either in Mexico or in Central America; when in the latter, the journey is significantly more difficult due to distance and multiple border crossings. In May and June, 2011, hundreds of migrants—Dominicans among them—were found by authorities in trailer trucks crossing into Chiapas, Mexico, from Guatemala. According to news reports, these migrants had paid $7000 for a journey that would have ended, ultimately, in the United States.[3]

Rather than crossing clandestinely, Dominicans occasionally present false documents at ports of entry and claim to be U.S. citizens. When the claim is to Puerto Rican citizenship and there is no biometric data on record, the Border Patrol sector in the southwest sometimes contacts Border Patrol in Puerto Rico to conduct an interview by videoconferencing. Through background checks and simple questions—concerning regional Puerto Rican slang, for example—the Puerto Rican agent can generally determine quickly if the claim to citizenship is false. Other Dominicans pose as Cubans but are usually discovered likewise during secondary inspection, sometimes with the involvement of the fraud division of the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. Those who are successful get their Notice to Appear and then never show in court.

Among my informants, Rubén was the only one to have migrated to the mainland United States through Mexico. In September, 2002 he travelled to Mexico with a tourist visa to attend a wedding but also with the intention of migrating north. The two Dominicans with whom he traveled likewise had one-way plans but opted to remain in Mexico. Rubén attended the wedding and afterwards met with a smuggler referred to him by friends. The smuggler put Rubén on a bus for the thirty-hour trip to Juárez; he was met at the station by a coyote and taken to a hotel. The next night they started walking—Rubén, another Dominican, and the coyote. At some point the group got separated and the coyote disappeared.

Rubén, still on the Mexican side of the border, eventually found a house and two women who assisted him. The husband of one of the women offered to take him across the border for $150 but Rubén did not have the money. He contacted relatives in New York, they sent $200, and Rubén made it across with this coyote. He then called his original contact, was picked up and held in an apartment in El Paso, and eventually was transported to Dallas inside a closed truck with eighteen other migrants. From Dallas Rubén travelled on his own by bus to New York.

Document Fraud

For decades Dominican migrants have entered the United States with altered or counterfeit documents and with genuine documents acquired fraudulently or used by impostors. The photographs on passports were substituted, biographical information was altered, visa pages were forged, blank passports stolen from consulates around the world were personalized, and valid passports—stolen, borrowed, or purchased from Americans—were presented at ports of entry by imposters. Duplicate copies of green cards were acquired with I-90 forms and then altered, and “washed visas”—meaning those treated with a chemical solvent that erases photographs and text—were customized for fraudulent use.

All of these manners of document fraud have been made more or less obsolete for entry into the United States by biometric and security features embedded into the documents themselves and by technology that links these machine-readable (scannable) documents to information stored in a database. U.S. passports are now protected in three ways: 1) by physical security features such as ultraviolet markings, holograms, and digital photography that make alteration difficult; 2) by a data chip, embedded in the back cover, that electronically duplicates the passport’s biographical information, thus protecting the document from alteration; and 3) by machine-readability. When passports (and visas) are swiped they access a record stored in a database that can be cross-checked with the traveler and the information in the document. The inspector also receives information regarding the validity of the passport and its history of use.

These security features, particularly the third, have minimized or eliminated the types of document fraud traditionally used by Dominicans. No matter how sophisticated the forgery or alteration of the physical document, the fraud is usually revealed after scanning. The enhancement of other citizenship and immigration documents is likewise making fraud more difficult. In late 2011, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began using an enhanced Employment Authorization Document and a redesigned Certificate of Citizenship that includes new tamper-proof security features.

While most altered passports and visas are unlikely to pass U.S. immigration inspectors, they can be used effectively for other purposes. A Dominican petitioning a tourist visa from the Spanish Embassy, for example, might include a fraudulent U.S. visa in his or her passport to impress consular authorities and improve the odds of approval. The migrant would then overstay the visa to remain in Spain, or could eventually gain residency (by marriage, for example) and enter the United States with a visa-waiver passport. A fraudulent U.S. passport might also pass scrutiny for entrance into a transit country in the Caribbean, with the subsequent goal of entering the U.S. surreptitiously by sea.

Scannable documents have also eliminated some of the traditional scams used by migrants for travel as imposters. In the past a migrant with a legitimate passport and nonimmigrant visa could travel to the United States and send the documents home by courier for use again by a look-alike relative. This scheme is no longer feasible because fingerprints are captured on the first use and matched to the document. Any subsequent fraudulent use is revealed when the impostor’s fingerprints do not conform to the record. The scanning also provides the inspector with the document’s history, including its recent use for entry.

Prior to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect between 2007 and 2009, American travelers to Mexico, Canada, and many Caribbean countries could return to the United States with a driver’s license or birth certificate. It was relatively easy then for Dominican migrants to pose as U.S. citizens and enter Puerto Rico with counterfeit, altered, or fraudulently acquired documents, particularly on the ferry that ran between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

This was a favored means of reuniting children with parents. Yola migrants are often willing to risk their own lives but not the lives of their children, so once they are established in Puerto Rico they seek alternate means of reunification. A Dominican-American could cross on the ferry, return with a friend’s child, show the birth certificate (which has no photograph) of his or her own child, and pass immigration with no problem. A false birth certificate could also be used. Child substitution is attempted by air as well, although required photographic identification now makes the effort feasible only with children who closely resemble one another (such as siblings and cousins). Fraudulently acquired Puerto Rican birth certificates are still used to acquire genuine U.S. passports for children, who then travel by air under assumed identities.[4]

The Visa Waiver Program offered another possibility for unauthorized entry. In the past one could acquire a passport from one of the thirty-six countries participating in the program and use the document to enter the United States without a visa. Many of these documents were relatively easy to alter. Two changes have made this type of fraud more difficult: first, the countries that participate in the program are now required to issue machine-readable passports, which eliminates most of the fraud; and second, the passengers are required to register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which prescreens foreign travelers and determines eligibility prior to departure.[5]

Foreign prescreening is part of a broader strategy of layered security and of confronting migration and security risks as far from U.S. borders as possible. Another component of this strategy is CBP’s Immigration Advisory Program, in which U.S. immigration agents stationed at foreign airports make “no board” recommendations when analysis identifies inadmissible aliens or security risks.

Despite all of these security measures, there are still several means of unauthorized entry into the United States. Most of these are encompassed by two types of identity theft: using a citizen’s documents as an impostor and fraudulent acquisition of genuine documents. Document fraud by these means became more prevalent after biometrics and machine-readable documents made alteration and forgery less viable.

The fraudulent use of a citizen’s documents is difficult to detect when an impostor resembles the document’s rightful owner. Inspectors are trained in facial features but ageing, weight gain or loss, beards, and security features over photographs provide leeway and obfuscation. After scanning a passport an inspector has access to information in the database record (such as place of birth, parents’ place of birth, and parents’ names) and the fraud is revealed during interview if the passport holder cannot answer simple questions. Biometric checks in secondary inspection would also reveal the fraud if the traveler had a criminal record or previous encounters with immigration authorities. (Travelers on American passports are not routinely fingerprinted on arrival).[6]

In March, 2008 a thirty-year-old Dominican man was arrested after making a false claim to U.S. citizenship at the border crossing in Niagara Falls, New York. He presented a California identification card and a Puerto Rican birth certificate to claim he was a U.S. citizen residing in California. Once fingerprints revealed his true identity, the man admitted that he had flown to Canada on a valid Dominican passport and had paid $5,000 for the fraudulent documents.

The documents used by impostors are acquired by many means. Some buy stolen documents; some borrow documents; and some acquire documents from American citizens who are willing to sell, rent, or loan their identities or their children’s. Typical in regard to the sale of passports is the citizen’s acquisition of a duplicate through false claims of loss, theft, or damage. In a more sophisticated scheme in 2007 and 2008, an employee of the Dominican consulate in New York smuggled several Dominicans using his family members’ A-2 visas, which provide for expedited immigration inspection. The employee traveled to the Dominican Republic about twice a month and returned with migrants who resembled his family members.[7]

In addition to traveling under an assumed identity, migrants use fraudulent foundation (or breeder) documents, such as someone else’s birth certificate and corresponding social security number, in applications for valid passports and drivers licenses. A Dominican acquires a genuine U.S. passport by using the documents of a Puerto Rican citizen, for example, so that the passport bears the Dominican’s photograph and the citizen’s biographical information. These documented false claims to citizenship, as they are called (because the claim is supported by a document), are difficult to detect because the passport is genuine and the photograph matches the traveler. The Government Accountability Office reported that in fiscal year 2004, “the use of other people’s legitimate birth and other identification documents accounted for 69 percent of passport fraud.” In some cases the identity of a deceased person is assumed in a passport application. In the 2006 Operation Death Match, data mining by federal agents located and arrested fifty impostors who obtained United States passports using the identities of deceased people.[8]

In rare cases, particularly among returning criminal deportees, false documents are combined with altered fingerprints in an attempt to evade detection upon entry. According to the fraud prevention manager at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, fingerprints are altered with acid, burning, or surgery by laser or scalpel. The process is done on all ten fingers, because all are scanned upon entry. The altered fingerprints are unrecognized by the IDENT database, so the migrant passes undetected unless an immigration officer notices the irregularity of the prints. Altered fingerprints are also used on occasion to evade biometrics at sea, for which only two fingerprints are taken. In February, 2011 a Dominican surgeon was arrested and sentenced for altering the fingerprints of several clients; one was a mother hoping to reunite with her son in New York.

Another strategy, seen frequently at the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo, is the use of fraudulent documents in an attempt to qualify for a tourist or business visa. In visa applications the  consulate looks for financial means and an established life to which the applicant will return. Family and social ties, steady employment, savings, and home or business ownership are common qualifiers. Dominicans seeking to migrate illegally generally have insufficient income and stability to qualify for visas, so they misrepresent themselves with the hope of acquiring a nonresident visa and then remaining in the United States.

As explained by the fraud prevention manager, “visa fixers” sell packages of false documents that include forged land titles or savings passbooks, for example, to convince consulate inspectors that the applicant intends to return home. The forged supporting documents also include letters from the United States, such as business invitations and acceptance from universities. Some applicants misrepresent themselves more informally by asking employers for letters that exaggerate the salary and rank of positions, or by borrowing money to boost the savings shown on the application.[9]

The volume of applicants in relation to staff resources makes it difficult for consulates to investigate all details. The situation may have improved in recent years, but in 1997 a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo said, “We can’t scrutinize cases the way we should, and so we are having to overlook things that would have been grounds for ineligibility in the past.” The head of the nonimmigrant visa section added, “If we had the resources to investigate, we’d probably find some element of fraud in the vast majority of cases. But you can’t investigate everything.”[10]

Another way to fraudulently acquire a nonimmigrant visa is to attach oneself to a sports team or musical group, such as a baseball team competing internationally or a merengue band going on tour. A name is added to the team or band roster in the petition for P-1 visas, either in exchange for payment or as a favor for a friend or relative. The added person then remains in the United States when the group returns. Fraud prevention conducts interviews and investigates to impede this type of fraud, but it is occurs successfully nevertheless. In April, 2011, a Dominican migrant attempted to enter Puerto Rico by a related means: he posed as a crew member on the ferry that runs between Santo Domingo and Mayaguez.

Malfeasance, though more common in the acquisition of foreign documents, also occurs at United States embassies. Consular employees with malleable morals are in a position to handsomely supplement their salaries with bribes. According to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, there were twenty-eight visa malfeasance cases between 2001 and 2004.  In a 2005 report, the Government Accountability Office found noncompliance with required internal security controls at six of the eleven posts that it visited. It also reported several impediments to the investigation and prosecution of visa malfeasance. A visa acquired through malfeasance is an authentic document and consequently the improper use is impossible to detect at ports of entry.[11]

In all of these cases, the goal in acquiring a nonimmigrant visa—usually a B-1 (business), B-2 (tourism), or H-2B (temporary work)—is  to enter the United States and then remain here. Visa overstays account for between a quarter and a half of all immigrants illegally in the country. To date US-VISIT has no exit system to match the automated biometric registry on arrival, so there is no certain, automated way of knowing if visitors overstay their visas. Before the biometric registry of yola migrants, similarly, the comings and goings were unrecorded.[12]


[1] “Boat Captain Charged with Alien Smuggling,” Department of Justice press release,  November 10, 2008; and United States Coast Guard Miami Sector Case Report # 431310, opened October 31, 2008, npn. The case report was acquired through Freedom of Information Act request 2011-0172; submitted on October 13, 2010; documents provided on February 7, 2011. According to internal Border Patrol documents, this voyage may have stopped in the Bahamas and picked up the Brazilian passengers before resuming its course to Miami.

[2] The most tragic Dominican stowaway event occurred in 1980, when twenty-two of the thirty-four migrants died by suffocation when they were trapped in a ballast tank of the Regina Express, a freighter that was headed for Miami.

[3] The statistics were provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In the same year, twenty-six Dominicans were apprehended at the Canadian border, twenty-six in Miami, and seven in New Orleans.

[4] Parents also acquire passports by renewing expired passports that have photographs that resemble their children. See Government Accountability Office, “State Department: Improvements Needed to  Strengthen U.S. Passport Fraud Detection Efforts” (Washington, DC: June 29, 2005), 5.

[5] See Scott Stewart and Fred Burton, “The Practical Implications of the WHTI,” STRATFOR Global Intelligence (May 28, 2009), npn; and “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” on the CBP website. For a 2007 scheme using passports from visa-waiver countries, see United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Toolkit to Combat Smuggling of Migrants, Tool 2 (New York and Vienna, 2010), 37-38. See also Mark B. Salter, “Passports, Mobility, and Security: How Smart Can the Border Be?” International Studies Perspectives 5 (2004): 73-74 and 80.

[6] For fraudulent use of genuine documents, see for example Sheldon X. Zhang, Smuggling and Trafficking in Human Beings: All Roads Lead to America (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2007), 42-47; and Raimo Väyrynen, “Illegal Immigration, Human Smuggling, and Organized Crime,” Discussion Paper 2003/72 (Helsinki:  United Nations University, World Institute for Development Economics Research, 2003), 6.

[7] For another passport scheme, see United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit, United States of America v. Máximo E. Tejada-Beltrán (March, 1995).

[8] The quoted passage is from Government Accountability Office, 2; see 6-7. Regarding foundation documents, see Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, “Visa Security: Getting Back to the Basics,” STRATFOR Global Intelligence (February 18, 2010), 3.

[9] For an example of borrowed money, see Milagros Iturrondo, Voces quisqueyanas en Borinquen (San Juan: Ediciones Camila, 2000), 70. A background sheet provided by the US Embassy in Santo Domingo indicates that much of the document fraud concerns H-2B visas (for temporary workers).

[10] Both of the quoted passages are in Larry Rohter, “Flood of Dominicans Lets Some Enter U.S. by Fraud,” New York Times (February 19, 1997).

[11] See United States Government Accountability Office Report to the Chairman, Committee onthe Judiciary, House of Representatives, “Border Security: More Emphasis on State’s Consular Safeguards Could Mitigate Visa Malfeasance Risks” (October, 2005), 2-3; and Salter, 82.

[12] Regarding the visa-overstay population, see Jeffrey S. Passel, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.: Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey,” Pew Hispanic Center (March 7, 2006), 16; and Pew Hispanic Center, “Fact Sheet: Modes of Entry for the Unauthorized Migrant Population” (May 22, 2006), 1 and 3. Regarding exit, in theory the I-94 forms surrendered upon departure could be researched to determine departures and, consequently, overstays, but such research is unlikely.