The Miami Herald
June 6, 2001

Colombian exiles face uncertain U.S. future


 A new wave of wealthy Colombians fleeing political violence and economic turmoil for safe haven in Florida blames the United States for the troubles back home but is often so unprepared for life in this country that it could face financial problems.

 According to a Florida International University study released Tuesday, these newcomers tend to avoid contact with Colombians from two earlier waves -- mostly blue collar or often drug related -- and socialize only with professional or white-collar Colombians. They put down roots in South Florida because they often speak only Spanish, but they grumble about the fact they cannot get good-paying jobs because they lack U.S.-style certification.

 Researchers from the school talked to hundreds of members of more than 30 Colombian social agencies and clubs in Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties in March. They warn that the nest eggs many of the refugees bring with them could be depleted in two to three years, forcing them to take low-paying jobs or even sell homes they have been buying in Miami Beach, Aventura, Weston and Miramar.

 The study -- which estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 upper-class Colombians have emigrated to the United States in the last three years -- puts the total number of
 Colombians in Florida from all three waves of emigration at 458,000. It estimates that 250,000 to 350,000 live in South Florida, half of them undocumented.

 The paper was presented at FIU by Professors Eduardo Gamarra, director of the school's Latin American and Caribbean Center, and Michael Collier, the center's director of research. Collier said the research was done by eight graduate students, four of whom are Colombian: Jesús Felizzola, a physician; Nathalia Franco, a journalist from Medellín; Alejandro García-Lemos, a Bogotá graphics artist; and Patricia Micolta.

 The paper says the third wave of Colombian migration began in 1995, and is continuing at a fast clip:

 ``Many see the personal threats to Colombians from guerrillas, paramilitaries, common criminals and government security forces as more severe than the threats that
 drove other Latin American and Caribbean groups . . .

 ``Others blame the current turmoil in Colombia on failed U.S. counter-drug policies and widespread corruption in the Colombian government. Caught in the bureaucratic debate over their status as political or economic migrants, the Colombians . . . are becoming increasingly frustrated as they attempt to establish their legal status.''

 Most of the refugees who often cite their fears of being killed or kidnapped by leftist or rightist revolutionaries, or of perishing in combat between the government and the insurgents, head for Miami, only a little more than two hours by air from Bogotá. Many believe that Colombians should be given the same special immigration status as Cubans fleeing political persecution in Cuba.

 Other Colombians are choosing Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica and Spain.

 They are adding to a mix in South Florida of Latin Americans escaping turmoil that has made the area much more diverse in the last 10 years according to the latest
 census. Large numbers of Colombians, Venezuelans, Peruvians and Ecuadorians are challenging, in terms of sheer numbers, the more than 650,000 South Floridians of Cuban descent, although they often are not organized politically and say they intend to return home if troubles there abate.

 ``The latest Colombian migrants arriving in South Florida compare their situation to those of other groups escaping political and economic turmoil,'' the paper said.

 Professional and white-collar Colombians feel, the paper says, ``safe without substantially changing their lifestyles'' in South Florida, but often have ``to face the sad reality that they must accept jobs that they would never have performed back home'' when they seek employment.

 Middle- and upper-middle-class Colombians are choosing new, large tract developments in Doral in Miami-Dade, in Miramar, Plantation, Pembroke Pines and Sunrise in Broward and in Boca Raton and West Palm Beach in Palm Beach County. Upper classes tend to buy homes in Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, Brickell, Bayshore and Coral Gables in Miami-Dade, and in Weston in Broward County. Many Jewish Colombians move to Aventura.

 The researchers predict that many of these refugees, who sometimes had to sell their homes or businesses in Colombia at sharply reduced prices before they left, ``have only enough resources to continue their middle- and upper-class lifestyles for two or three years in South Florida.''

 ``If unable to reestablish new sources of income . . . these persons will have to migrate to other locations or look for jobs, possibly in the region's manufacturing, service or agricultural industries.'' Many professionals are surprised, the report says, that they cannot easily obtain licenses and work permits.

                                   © 2001