The Miami Herald
August 12, 2000

Wealthy Latin American immigrants seek refuge in South Florida


 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 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.''


 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

 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.


 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

 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

 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

 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.


 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

 ``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.