Harbinger of South American revolutionary surge ?

Charles Brown CharlesB at CNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Tue Aug 15 10:00:03 PDT 2000

Wealthy Latin American immigrants seek refuge in South Florida GETTING ORIENTED

Miami Herald August 12, 2000

BY ALFONSO CHARDY achardy at herald.com

Political and economic instability is prompting thousands of prominent and wealthy South Americans to flee their countries and seek permanent residence in the United States -- mostly in South Florida.

During the last year, immigration attorneys estimated that between 25,000 and 50,000 people from Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have arrived in South Florida -- legally or illegally -- as virtual ``refugees'' from turmoil in their homelands. Most are seeking help in obtaining U.S. residency.

``It's a veritable new exodus of people who are leaving their home countries because of insecurity,'' said Michael Bander, a former U.S. diplomat in South America and veteran Miami immigration attorney who said he noticed the influx several months ago.

THE EXODUS The exodus consists mainly of middle and upper-middle class, highly educated professionals or property owners who under normal circumstances would have stayed home.

Augusto Mazariegos, a Colombian biologist who now lives in Pembroke Pines, said fear of abduction or persecution by leftist guerrillas and other armed groups in his homeland prompted him to seek residence in the United States in 1998.

After his daughter Gabriela was born, he gave up on the idea of returning to Colombia to live. He was not sure the United States would let him stay.

``I don't want to go back,'' Mazariegos said. ``It's just not safe anymore for me or my family.''

The presence of people such as Mazariegos is being felt throughout South Florida, particularly in the high-end property markets of Key Biscayne, Weston and Boca Raton, where many South Americans already live.

``The wealthy are afraid,'' said immigration lawyer Tammy Fox-Isicoff said. ``People with money are beginning to get out of Venezuela and other countries. When the economy is good in South America, the rich stay. In some of these countries, they can have three maids and a chauffeur for what here is a middle-class existence.''

CHAVEZ'S EFFECT About 150,000 Venezuelans have left their country since President Hugo Chávez took over 18 months ago, according to published reports from Caracas.

``Many say Chávez has been a catalyst for their departure,'' said Christopher Blackman, vice president of marketing and sales at the Ocean Club where -- he added -- ``more Venezuelans than usual'' were buying condominiums at the Key Biscayne resort community.

In Weston, Jack Miller, Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer, said his office is getting increasing inquiries from South Americans about buying homes and businesses in the booming West Broward community.

``The tragedy is for those nations and the benefit is for us because we're getting the cream of the crop, highly skilled and highly motivated people,'' said Antonia Canero, a Miami immigration lawyer raised in Venezuela. Ira Kurzban, another prominent immigration lawyer, said he has noticed the greatest increase among Colombians.

``Every immigration lawyer now has more Colombian clients than they ever had before,'' Kurzban said, attributing it to ``destabilization and what's going on in the country.''

Maria Cardona, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman, said INS is aware of the increase but does not have specific numbers. Many come into the country on tourist visas and then stay.

INCREASED NUMBERS Said a senior Clinton administration official in Washington: ``Anecdotally, we have heard that there are increased numbers of Colombians, Venezuelans and other people from South America arriving,'' the official said. ``This is not out of the ordinary given some of the economic and social turmoil that these countries are experiencing.''

Argentines and Ecuadorans are leaving nations roiled by recession where unemployment and company failures have reached significant levels. Venezuelans are leaving because of political perceptions, fears that Chávez may seize or disrupt their businesses.

Colombians are escaping what many view as growing anarchy in which emboldened guerrillas and other armed groups have forced the government in Bogotá to seek U.S. assistance.

``The truth is that our country is in a situation of war,'' a Colombian professional wrote to Bander in a recent e-mail in which she broached the idea of coming to the United States.

Johanna Dávila, program director for the Colombian-American Service Association, said her agency assists at least 1,000 newly arrived families a month who have fled Colombia.

``The exodus is impressive and alarming,'' said Dávila, herself a recent Colombian immigrant. Dávila said many are actually refugees from violence and that most -- if not all -- should receive political asylum in the United States.

However, political asylum is often difficult to get and claims can take years to process.

People who seek permanent residency may have no right to it, unless they have a close family relative living in the United States or special employment circumstances.

Mazariegos, the biologist, for example, is legally in the country for now under a ``specialty occupation'' visa awarded to highly skilled professionals. The permit is scheduled to expire in December 2001, he said. He came here as a representative of a family-owned business that manufactures agricultural pesticides.

Mazariegos can ask for resident status, but it is a complex and lengthy process during which he may have to return home to await approval -- something he does not want to do.

Argentines also are leaving their country for South Florida, as well as Canada and Western Europe. ``Each time more Argentines are leaving the country for lack of jobs,'' read the lead headline in the July edition of the monthly Miami Spanish-language newspaper El Argentino MercoSur. The article attributed the exodus to a recession that has left hundreds of thousands unemployed.

``Argentina is going through a national emergency,'' said El Argentino MercoSur co-editor Graciela Micheli.

BIGGER COMMUNITIES She estimated that the Argentine community, usually 30,000 or so throughout the 1970s and 1980s, has now grown to 50,000.

Roberto Bignes, owner of Buenos Aires Market at 7315 Collins Ave., said he is seeing dozens of new customers at his Argentine bakery and grocery in Miami Beach.

``The jumbo jets from Buenos Aires arrive packed and not everybody goes back when their tourist visas expire,'' said Bignes, who has been living in Miami-Dade County for 10 years.

Economic woes are also prompting thousands to leave Ecuador to live abroad, although many also head to the U.S. West Coast. Last month, for example, a Coast Guard cutter operating in the Pacific intercepted a boat carrying 186 Ecuadorans trying to enter the United States illegally -- the ninth vessel from Ecuador stopped at sea by U.S. authorities since March 1999.

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