The Miami Herald
March 30, 2001

 Colombian travelers asking to stay in U.S.

 Airports become asylum destination


 Thousands of Colombians, desperate to flee their homeland and seek political asylum, are skirting immigration laws by taking international flights that connect through the United States and then abandoning their travels once they hit U.S. airports.

 Just last week, more than 100 Colombians -- passengers in several planes headed to other countries -- approached immigration officers at Miami International Airport's transit lounge and asked for asylum.

 Alarmed by the growing numbers, the U.S. government announced plans Thursday to require visas of traveling Colombians, even when their destination is another country. Airlines have already started enforcing the practice.

 U.S. officials said buying tickets to a third country and then asking for asylum became increasingly popular over the last year after many Colombians had their U.S. tourist visa requests denied at the embassy in Bogotá.

 ``Yes, we are seeing more Colombians than usual in transit without visas trying to stay,'' said María Elena García, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
 spokeswoman in Miami.

 The change follows an announcement earlier this month that Colombians would need visas for travel to European Union countries. Previously, Colombians could enter several European countries including Spain and Italy without visas.

 INS officials in Miami declined to comment on the U.S. embassy's announcement Thursday.

 ``We are aware of the situation and we are currently working on a number of fronts to address the issue,'' said García, the INS spokeswoman.

 In Bogotá this week, the U.S. embassy posted a statement on its website saying that soon ``all Colombians with intentions to transit through an airport in the United
 States to a third country will be required to present a valid visa on boarding the flight to the United States.''

 ``The measure has been taken in view of the increase in the number of Colombians who have traveled to the United States without visa and who took advantage of their transit status to ask for political asylum,'' the statement said, adding that many of the asylum claims were ``unfounded.''

 Colombians are among thousands of South Americans fleeing their countries to seek residence in the United States because of political and economic instability.

 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.

 INS figures show a substantial increase in the number of asylum applications filed by Colombian nationals in the United States.

 According to the figures, 2,747 applications were filed in fiscal year 2000 compared to 427 in fiscal year 1999. So far this fiscal year, 1,447 asylum applications have been filed, the INS figures show.

 In Bogotá, the embassy said that more than 1,000 Colombians flying in transit through Miami had requested political asylum since January -- or an average of 30 daily.

 Jorge Eliecer Arias Rosero, 52, is one of them.

 In an interview Thursday at the Colombian American Service Association, Arias Rosero said he bought a ticket to Madrid on a flight that required a change of planes in Miami.

 Upon arrival in Miami on Dec. 23, he told an immigration officer at MIA that he wanted asylum.

 He was held at the airport for hours and then finally transferred to the Krome Service Processing Center, an INS detention facility in west Miami-Dade early Dec. 24.

 Released on Jan. 13 pending resolution of his asylum case, Arias Rosero now wanders the streets looking for help wherever he can find fellow Colombians.

 ``Sometimes I sleep in the streets and other times I spend a night here and a night there in friends' homes or even the homes of strangers,'' Arias Rosero said. ``There's no choice because my country is at war.''

 Arias Rosero, who has no relatives in Miami, said he decided to flee Colombia after he was briefly kidnapped by guerrillas in late 1999 and then received death threats in 2000. His wife and their eight-year-old daughter are now in Italy staying with one of his wife's sisters.

 Rather than restricting the entry of Colombians, Juan Cárlos Zapata, president of the Colombian American Service Association, said the Bush administration should grant Colombians an emergency provision known as Temporary Protected Status or TPS which allows nationals from countries in crisis to obtain temporary authorization for work and residency.

 The Associated Press contributed to this report

                                    © 2001