Wealthy Latin American immigrants seek refuge in South Florida
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Political and economic instability is prompting thousands of prominent
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
professionals or property owners who under normal circumstances would have
Augusto Mazariegos, a Colombian biologist who now lives in Pembroke
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
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
The presence of people such as Mazariegos is being felt throughout
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
``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
About 150,000 Venezuelans have left their country since President
took over 18 months ago, according to published reports from Caracas.
``Many say Chávez has been a catalyst for their departure,''
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
``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
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
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
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.