The drowning last weekend of 40 Haitians trying to sneak into Florida without US visas is focusing attention on a growing illicit industry in the Caribbean - immigrant smuggling.
The incident is being called the worst smuggling disaster in Florida history. And some officials hope that word of the tragedy will deter others.
But immigration experts say the flow of illegal immigrants will likely continue to rise as long as economic conditions are deteriorating in Haiti and Cuba.
In contrast, the US economy is booming and jobs are plentiful. And there is apparently no shortage of smugglers willing to charge would-be illegal immigrants between $2,500 and $9,000 for a seat on what is supposed to be a midnight voyage to political freedom and economic prosperity.
The trend in the Caribbean is consistent with a worldwide pattern in which illegal immigrants are resorting to professional smugglers to counteract beefed-up interdiction efforts by US and other immigration services.
There are no reliable statistics showing how often illegal immigrants get what they pay for. But some experts say anecdotal evidence suggests that the move toward professional smugglers is proving increasingly dangerous to immigrants.
"What we are seeing is larger numbers of people dying. Not just Haitians drowning, but Mexicans dying of exposure in the desert or being swept away by the Rio Grande," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
EVEN Cubans, who took to the seas in unprecedented numbers in flimsy homemade rafts in the early 1990s, are becoming victims of high-risk smuggling schemes. On Dec. 17, 13 Cubans died when the 29-foot speed boat in which they were being transported sank in high seas about 30 miles south of Miami.
As the Coast Guard and Border Patrol become more effective, smugglers resort to increasingly risky routes and methods to get their human cargo to the US, analysts say. Safety of the immigrants is rarely a major consideration.
Last weekend, two boats loaded with Haitian immigrants put to sea in the middle of the night from Grand Bahama Island. Both were heavily overloaded. One boat was 17 feet long and held 16 men and two women. The other boat was 20 feet long and carried 20 men and five women.
Within hours, the smaller boat began taking on water. When the panicked passengers tried to board the second boat, it too swamped. Only three men survived the sinking. The emergency may have gone completely unreported were it not for crew members on a passing Maltese cargo ship who heard screams across the dark sea.
Such attempts are fueled in large part by a misperception that once illegal immigrants arrive in the US it will be relatively easy to obtain legal documents and a job.
Samedi Florvil of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami says he and others are trying to spread the word back in Haiti about the dangers of smuggling trips and the harsh reality that awaits anyone who makes it to America. "We talk on the radio and in the media and to the people in Haiti to let them know what's going on," Mr. Florvil says. "But the smugglers say, 'Don't listen to them, they are already over there.' "
All the Haitians on the two boats spent the equivalent of their life savings to be there, Florvil says. The smugglers lie to them, telling them that America is an easy place to live and that they have a seaworthy boat with only a handful of other passengers, he says. By the time the Haitians arrive at the dock in the middle of the night and learn the truth, they've already paid.
The increase in the smuggling of Cubans to the US is a result of the Clinton administration's reversal of the longstanding policy of offering sanctuary to any Cubans intercepted at sea. Under the new policy, sanctuary will be offered only to those Cubans who actually make it to shore.
THE policy change brought an end to what had become a burgeoning exodus of Cuban rafters in 1994. But it created a lucrative market for smugglers.
"The reason you see an increase in professional smuggling at this point is that if you are interdicted at sea by the Coast Guard you are repatriated. So a raft doesn't do you any good," says Dan Geoghegan, assistant chief of the Border Patrol in south Florida.
However, Cubans who reach a US beach can count on sanctuary, while Haitians and others face deportation. Mr. Krikorian says the policy establishes an incentive for Cubans to rely on smugglers. He says the US should end the special status of Cubans and treat them like other illegal immigrants.
In addition, the government should strictly enforce work laws that bar illegal immigrants from employment in the US.
"What we have set up is a system where our borders are harder to cross than in recent years but jobs are easier to get," Krikorian says. "So we are in a sense provoking some of this illegal immigration."
Jose Basulto has seen the impact of US immigration policy close up for many years. He runs a Cuban refugee-assistance group called Brothers to the Rescue, which flies planes over the Florida Straits.
Mr. Basulto and others try to discourage Cubans from making the trip. But sometimes pilots still find Cuban refugees at sea.
Basulto says the pilot will only report the position of the Cubans to US authorities if the refugees ask that it be done.
"We first tell them that the chances are that if they are picked up by the US Coast Guard they will be returned to Cuba," Basulto says. "But being returned to Cuba is better than dying in the Straits of Florida."