When Claudia boarded a migrant boat to Puerto Rico she had no idea that her migration was conditioned by globalization, neoliberalism, or even chronic poverty—she just missed her husband. He had migrated a few years earlier and Claudia was motivated by love, longing, and the anxiety that another woman would replace her. The anxiety generated a sense of urgency. Claudia had no idea that her family was transnational; that her perceptions were conditioned by relative deprivation; that a culture of migration—routine boat travel, easy access to smugglers, official corruption—predisposed and facilitated her migration. All of these factors were bearing down imperceptibly as Claudia exercised her free will and acted on her love and longing. Her simple human concerns had been permeated but nevertheless remained simple and human. And she had no idea that she would become a statistic for family reunification, for the feminization of migration, and, ultimately, for migrant interdiction operations. She just missed her husband.
Thousands of undocumented Dominicans attempt the crossing to Puerto Rico, a sixty- to ninety-mile journey on wooden boats known as yolas. As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico attracts migrants with its dollar economy and its access to the mainland without passports and visas. For some migrants Puerto Rico is the final destination; for others it is a temporary residence before continuing to New York and other U.S. cities.
Individual decisions to migrate result from the dynamic interactions of structural, cultural, and personal factors that motivate or dissuade a given migrant. One migrant is more affected by some factors and another migrant by others, and many factors are never explicitly taken into account, but migration is always multiply determined by a causal composite. Structural forces predispose migration and a culture conditioned by poverty sustains it, but decisions to migrate, to stay home, and to return home are then precipitated by more immediate personal concerns. An appreciation of such concerns—aspirations, responsibility, desperation, beliefs—restores the emotive cognition that is irrelevant to most migration scholarship but critical to migrant motivation.
The inclusion and integration of personal factors also avoids the causal determinism that is characteristic of structuralist arguments and the overemphasis on quantifiable data that is prevalent in social-science scholarship generally. Undocumented migration is idiosyncratic, chaotic, and poorly suited to fixed systems that purport to explain motivation structurally and statistically. Migrants are social beings whose collective individual actions are transforming the very structures that mobilize them, and they are human beings whose humanity is simplified and devalued when adapted to the rigid limitations of empiricism. The complex causation of migration does not entail the operations of macro-level factors on passive actors or the isolation of individual action from its context; it rather entails the mutual interactions and evolutions of the mentioned overlapping spheres—structural, cultural, and personal—as they negotiate a "balance of causal priority." Frustration, ambition, vulnerability, flight, compulsion, loss, perception, values, knowledge and its interpretations, individual responses to structural pressures, and other unquantifiable factors make decisions to migrate very subjective and very human.
The migration theory that most resembles this complex of causal factors is known as "cumulative causation," a concept that was introduced by Gunnar Myrdal in 1957 and later developed by Douglas S. Massey. Myrdal, who was primarily concerned with circular causation as it relates to poverty, recognized that a process of social change can develop an internal, cumulative, accelerating momentum. In Massey's development of the concept, "causation is cumulative in that each act of migration alters the social context within which subsequent migration decisions are made, typically in ways that make additional movement more likely." International migration tends to become self-perpetuating primarily because migrant networks and a culture of migration in sending communities facilitate new departures. The cumulative expansion of networks—each new migrant links to family, friends, and community relations, which in turn link to others—provides knowledge that modifies perceptions and resources that reduce the expense and risk of migration. Social and economic changes in sending communities themselves—the familiarity with higher standards of living abroad, the beneficial effects of remittances on neighboring families, an enhanced sense of relative deprivation—are also conducive to continued and increased migration. As Massey sees it, the decision to migrate is "increasingly disconnected from social and economic conditions in the sending community and determined more by the accumulation of migration-related human capital and social capital in the form of network connections." He argues in summary "that migration decisions are made jointly by family members within households; that household decisions are affected by local socioeconomic conditions; that local conditions are, in turn, affected by evolving political, social, and economic structures at the national and international levels; and that these interrelationships are connected to one another over time."
Massey's theory is based primarily on research among rural Mexicans. The complex causation of undocumented Dominican migration conforms to many of the observations proper to that fieldwork—the social context altered by migration, a degree of self-perpetuation, the role of migrant networks, an enhanced sense of relative deprivation, and the interrelations of micro- and macro-level factors—but also differs from the tenets of cumulative-causation theory in several important respects:
- Network connections, while important, are not the dominant factor in decisions to migrate, and these decisions are not disconnected from social and economic conditions as network connections become stronger. Cumulative causation stresses the self-perpetuation of migration "regardless of the conditions that originally caused it," but Dominican migrant flows vary significantly in response to economic fluctuations and to border enforcement.
- Decisions to migrate are less reasoned and more informal than they are represented in cumulative-causation theory (and in sociology generally), in part because motivation is generated not by rational choice but rather by the interactions of emotion and cognition under cultural and structural pressures. Many migrant decisions are made with little or no planning, and some are spontaneous.
- The decisions are often made by individuals, not by families, even to the degree that many migrants depart on yolas secretly, without informing family members. The decisions are usually made, however, to benefit families (to support one's children, for example).
- The potential loss of the smuggling fee is a primary concern as most Dominicans consider migration, and for this reason their perceptions of smuggler reliability, border enforcement, and job availability are critical.
- Interacting social and cultural factors, referred to in summary as a "culture of migration," predispose migration as suggested by cumulative-causation and other theories, but the culture of undocumented Dominican migration encompasses a broad range of factors—values, attitudes toward the law, corruption, and routinization of undocumented departures, for example—in addition to the commonly mentioned emulation, networking, relative deprivation, and illusions of migrant life abroad.
- While it is often correct that "each act of migration alters motivations and perceptions in ways that encourage additional migration," the reports from failed and return migrants, and from unemployed and underemployed migrants abroad, tend to discourage migration.
Complex causation, in summary, entails the interactions of individual disposition, cultural context, and domestic and global conditions as they together generate migration. The structural factors that are most pertinent to undocumented Dominican migration are summarized in the next three sections. These include, respectively, global economic factors, benefits of migration to the Dominican government, and chronic poverty. These factors are supplemented on the companion website by "United States Foreign Policy," which explores U.S. interventions in the Dominican Republic as a contributing cause of the migration that, in turn, U.S. border enforcement attempts to curtail. All of these factors, together with the personal, cultural, and border-enforcement factors treated in later chapters, are interactive in the complex causation of migration.
Global Economic Factors Conducive to Undocumented Migration Wage Differentials
Many Dominican informants relate that in Puerto Rico the income is higher and the cost of living is lower: ganas más y cuesta menos. Tito elaborates: In the Dominican Republic you work a day just to eat that day, but abroad you work a day and can eat for a week or month. With such views the migrants express a central premise of neoclassical economics, that differences in wage rates between countries induce workers to migrate internationally in pursuit of higher income. More recent economic theories have added, among other observations, that migration results from economic failures that jeopardize material well-being and impede economic advancement; and that decisions to migrate are not made by isolated individuals but by groups—usually families—in which people act collectively to maximize anticipated income and to minimize risk in the event of domestic economic decline. In addition to monetary gain, higher wages also confer status and prestige. Even demeaning jobs by U.S. standards can be perceived as prestigious—if only because the jobs are abroad—and the prestige is enhanced by remittances that improve relatives' standards of living in the home country.
All of these ideas apply in varying degrees to undocumented Dominican migration but with a qualification regarding individual and group decision making. Economic theory gives the impression that migrants think like economists, making calculations of economic fluctuations and cost-benefit ratios and then planning for the long term by diversifying portfolios with remittances. The great majority of yola migrants are not formally educated and their approach to problems is less ponderous than that of the scholars who write about them. In most cases a prospective migrant resolves individually and sometimes arationally to make the journey and then evades anticipated objections or convinces others to support the decision. Some couples or families do discuss migration as a means of advancement, but the discussions rarely entail more than "I'll go and send money home" or "We'll save until we can build a house, and then I'll come back." The planning sometimes concerns the very human and noneconomical matter of who will face the danger: "My oldest son wanted to make the trip and I told him: 'David, I'm the one who should go, because if the yola is lost, nothing is lost; you're very young.'" In most cases the decisions are made with little or no formal planning and in the absence of accurate information that might inform a choice. There is generally a vague sense that income would increase by working abroad—"I could make more money in Puerto Rico, like my cousin"—but without considering, for example, the double expense of living abroad and sending home remittances.
As described by Saskia Sassen, the consolidation of a world economy "creates the conditions in which international migrations emerge as a massive labor-supply system." Capitalism extends outward from developed nations and penetrates countries of the developing world, and consequently "noncapitalist patterns of social and economic formation are disrupted and transformed." A result is massive displacement from traditional livelihoods, creating mobile populations prone to migration. Already in 1989 Aristide R. Zolberg observed that "no corner of the globe is now left that has not been restructured by market forces, uprooting the last remnants of subsistence economies and propelling ever growing numbers to search for work."
At the same time, workers in developed countries such as the United States resist low-paying, labor-intensive jobs, even in times of high unemployment, thereby creating a strong demand for immigrant labor. A mobile, unemployed labor force in one country connects with the demand for cheap labor in another. The supply and demand of labor are also affected by population growth, which is almost six times faster in developing countries. Rapid population growth combined with job shortage and poverty induce young people in developing countries to migrate in search of employment, while in developed countries slow growth and an aging population create a need for immigrant labor.
Historically, the labor flows to the United States—including Puerto Rico—have been cyclical, with many migrants coming and going but not settling permanently. Enhanced border enforcement has disrupted that cyclicity because multiple crossings are now unfeasible due to the risk and cost, and an unintended consequence has been the consolidation of an undocumented population in the United States. This, in turn, has accelerated the growth of an impoverished underclass, including a second generation born into an urban, U.S. version of the disadvantage that migrant parents escaped in their countries of origin. Migrants' quest for a better future for their children often results, consequently, in downward assimilation, which perpetuates a cheap labor force together with the social problems associated with urban poverty, including crime.
Neoliberalism (also known as "the Washington Consensus") refers to policies that promote deregulation, liberalized foreign trade and investment, and privatization of state-owned enterprises. In theory neoliberalism benefits developing countries, but in practice the imposition of structural adjustments has been mostly detrimental to economies and societies. It has also aggravated disparities in the distribution of wealth, both domestically and globally. The ratio of income differentials between the richest and poorest countries is currently about 70:1. Over half of the world's population—2.8 billion people—lives on less than $2 each daily, and many consume less in a month than most Americans consume in a day. In Latin America, nearly 80 million people lived in extreme poverty, with daily incomes of less than $1. The consequences, insofar as migration is concerned, are apparent: "The number of migrants seeking to move from disadvantaged to relatively privileged countries is likely to increase," and this is "fueled by a widening gap in economic and physical security between adjacent regions."
The levels of income inequality in Latin America are among the highest in the world, and the Dominican Republic, though less severely polarized than some other countries in the region, has a Gini coefficient of 48. Dominican poverty and wealth disparity are perpetuated by weak institutions and corruption; by policies and allocation of resources that benefit a small minority; by insufficient political will to make long-term, pro-poor developmental commitments; and by the adoption of neoliberal policies that have worsened the inequity that these policies purport to alleviate.
The economic restructuring of the Dominican Republic began in the 1970s with a transition from agricultural exports to an economy based on tourism and export-processing free trade zones (also known as zonas francas). Prior to the global recession beginning in December 2007 there were about sixty of these zones in which some 600 firms operated; in 2010 there were fifty-five zones with about 450 firms. Tax exonerations, exemption from domestic laws that protect labor, and low wages make these zones attractive to foreign corporations. The establishment of free trade zones was complemented in the Dominican Republic by other neoliberal reforms, such as the privatization of state-owned enterprises including an airline, a hotel chain, sugar mills, and electricity companies.
The Dominican Republic consequently experienced an initial burst of growth that benefited the elite, foreign investors, and to some degree an emerging middle class, but the majority of Dominicans were excluded from the economic benefits and little was accomplished to ameliorate poverty. The overall effect for workers was detrimental: a doubling of unemployment between 1971 and 1991, inflation that decreased minimum-wage purchasing power to half the value it had in the early 1970s, and repressive containment of social discontent resulting from impoverishment. The symptoms of chronic poverty—unemployment, illiteracy, infant mortality, malnutrition, social instability—were prevalent. In short, the incorporation of the Dominican Republic into global capitalism did more to foster migration than to improve the social and economic conditions that might induce potential migrants to stay home.
Similarly, the U.S.–Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (known as DR-CAFTA), implemented in the Dominican Republic on March 1, 2007, eliminates barriers to trade and investment and may benefit some social sectors, but among the population inclined to migrate the positive effects have been minimal. Exploitation, conversely, is prevalent: "D.R.-CAFTA fails to require compliance with even the most basic internationally recognized labor rights and norms." In recent years there has also been a significant decline in free trade zone employment, partially as a result of competition from similar zones in Central America and Asia. At their peak the Dominican free trade zones employed 200,000 workers; by 2010 the number had fallen below 120,000.
Even the term "Washington Consensus" suggests that neoliberal policies are designed by and for the benefit of wealthy countries that have the capital to invest in the opened free markets and to benefit from the structural adjustments that create a favorable profit environment. Neoliberal discourse is embellished with the promise of a beneficent future in which a measure of prosperity is shared by all, but the benefits in developing countries tend to accrue to a politically powerful elite. National interests are subordinate to multinational corporate interests, and poor Dominicans are subjects of "a system in which the model of economic growth and the institutional order create wealth while reproducing poverty." The neoliberal globalization of corporate capitalism yields huge profits for some while maintaining and exacerbating the poverty of others. Its relentless and sometimes ruthless quest to maximize profit results in profound damages to social stability, labor rights, education, housing, and health care, but also to traditional lifestyles and values.
All of these consequences collectively are conducive to labor migration, but the neoliberal concept of liberalization excludes the free movement of labor. Capital and trade move freely across borders but labor is blocked, and this blockage causes "a distortion of the globalization process" and forces workers to migrate illegally. Undocumented immigrants who do enter the United States (there are currently some 11 million) are excluded socially but at once included in the workforce "under imposed conditions of enforced and protracted vulnerability." In this perspective, a function of borders is the maintenance of inequitable wealth distribution and "the extraction of cheap labor by assigning criminal status to a segment of the working class—illegal immigrants."
In another perspective, however, the interests of corporate capitalism and of U.S. border-enforcement policy are in conflict: many industries depend on the undocumented immigration that border enforcement attempts to reduce or eliminate. The dependence on undocumented cheap labor is frustrated by the politically expedient need to control the volume. Corporate capitalism nevertheless benefits: neoliberalism generates corporate wealth abroad and in doing so exacerbates local poverty; that poverty motivates international migration, which creates a cheap and docile labor force for corporations in the United States; and a border-enforcement/industrial complex—which maintains an expensive enforcement regimen, including prisons for mandatory administrative detention—provides corporate contracts subsidized by taxpayers. It's a trifecta.
Benefits of Migration to the Dominican Government
When masses of migrants depart in search of opportunities abroad, the demand for scarce domestic employment is reduced and the burden on social programs (education, health care, pensions) is lowered. Remittances from migrants working abroad redouble the benefits by alleviating the poverty of others. The economy is energized by increased consumption, housing is improved, and—to some degree—small businesses are developed with invested remittances. Poor Dominicans who have migrated to work abroad thus doubly contribute to remedying the grim situation that motivated their migration, once by their absence and again by supporting others.
These safety-valve functions of migration—the release of potentially explosive social and economic pressures—also include the "export of discontent," as exemplified by the migration of opposition activists after Joaquín Balaguer assumed the presidency in 1966. Unlike economic migration today, these first departures were politically motivated, largely from the urban middle class, and facilitated by the United States in order to consolidate Balaguer's power. Economic migration followed—discontent comes in many forms—and eased the social pressures of disillusionment and frustration that result from entrapment in poverty. The hundreds of thousands of migrants with immigrant visas over the subsequent decades were complemented by uncounted others who benefited from liberal distribution of nonimmigrant visas and from acquiescence to visa overstays (and thus to undocumented labor) in the United States.
Dominican migration began at a favorable visa-granting time and accrued "a large legal population, allowing permanent family-based immigration to gain considerable momentum." Later, when the Dominican Republic suffered economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s and 2003–2004, the waves of new migrants faced different circumstances. The infrastructure was in place, critical mass in the United States had been established (and augmented by the 1986 amnesty), the network continued to draw and to facilitate new departures, but visa ineligibility and bureaucratic resistance frustrated migration within the system. The blocked momentum diverted to undocumented migration by yola, which over the past few decades has become an established compensatory channel to economic advancement.
The Dominican government benefits multiply from these waves of migration, to a certain degree depends on them, and despite intermittent disruption has tacitly condoned undocumented departures. As early as 1978 a CIA report observed that "given the bleak employment prospects, the Dominican Government will resist taking strong measures to deter illegal migration." The government has done little to impede undocumented departures; on the contrary, some of its agencies, notably the Dominican navy, have for decades profited with impunity from complicity in migrant smuggling.
The burden of basic social security is displaced from a government to its citizens—its poor citizens—when migration and remittances become compensatory means to subsidize a nation's economy. According to Dominican Central Bank statistics, households in the Dominican Republic have received remittances from family members abroad as follows: $3.22 billion in 2008, $3.04 billion in 2009, and $2.99 billion in 2010. These sums represent about 10 percent of the Dominican Republic's gross domestic product. A 2004 Inter-American Development Bank study found that more than 70 percent of an estimated 2 million Dominican adults working abroad (in the United States and other countries) regularly remit to 38 percent of adults (1.9 million) in the Dominican Republic, for an estimated total of $2.7 billion. As Luis Guarnizo explained in 1997, "Migrants' monetary transfers (excluding their business investments) now constitute the second, and according to some the first, most important source of foreign exchange for the national economy, and they are a sine qua non for Dominican macro economic stability, including monetary exchange rates, balance of trade, international monetary reserves, and the national balance of payments."
The migrants most able to remit are those who entered the United States with immigrant visas or who later normalized undocumented status (through amnesty or marriage, for example) and gained access to formal employment. Many yola migrants today, struggling for income in a weak economy, remit little, and some can barely meet their own living expenses abroad. Sonia's husband sends $100 or $200 "every once in a while"; Víctor's wife sends less than $100 "when she can"; and the spouses of many others send nothing. The pattern is similar to the results of a study conducted earlier in a poor Santo Domingo neighborhood where 77 percent of the households had family members who migrated to the United States but only 26 percent of these households received remittances regularly.
If undocumented migrants' inability to send remittances persists in the long term and on a grand scale, then the safety valve may gradually close and pressure may increase on Dominican society and government. The pressure is also increased when migrant flow is blocked by U.S. border enforcement. I asked Moreno what happens when unemployment at home cannot be relieved by migrant work abroad. He responded succinctly: "Crime."
Poor Dominicans are caught in the vicious cycle of migration as a symptom of underdevelopment but also as a cause of it, insofar as migration defers or substitutes sustainable development. As Alejandro Portes explains it, "Out-migration acquires structural importance for sending nations not by developing them, but precisely by consolidating entrenched elites inimical to their development. The 'safety valve' function of large outflows and the role of remittances in buttressing public finances play a role in the process: they do not change the institutional underpinnings of economic stagnation and social inequality, but can actually perpetuate them." A government's dependence on migration is consequently not conducive to developmental transformation but is rather a temporary expedient or default remedy with long-term consequences.
The benefits of migration to the Dominican government are also suggested by the 1994 constitutional reform that provided for dual nationality. Dominicans who were legal residents of the United States gained the opportunity to become U.S. citizens without losing their rights as Dominican citizens. President Leonel Fernández, himself a legal resident of the United States, encouraged them to naturalize while at once maintaining ties with the Dominican Republic, thereby fostering transnational identity and family-reunification visas that are conducive to continued migration. In 1997 the right to vote in presidential elections was extended to Dominicans living abroad, and in 2004 and 2008 Dominicans voting from the United States contributed to the reelection of Fernández to the presidency.
Dominican immigrants in Washington Heights, New York, themselves recognize that remittances can foster a dependence that is detrimental to the recipients' motivation and to the Dominican Republic's economic development. "People don't make efforts to work because we keep sending money," one said, and consequently remittances "are creating a new social class, la clase de los mantenidos [the class of supported people]" that awaits money from abroad rather than seeking work or self-advancement. Remitters are also explicit regarding a displacement of responsibility: "The pressure is on people here, not on the Dominican government." They recognize that dependence on remittances diminishes the will of the recipients and of the Dominican government to pursue other means of economic security and that their migrant labor both compensates for and contributes to this inertia.
The inability of the Dominican government to remedy chronic social and economic problems has engendered profound discontent among citizens. In a 1985 survey, for example, 83 and 84 percent of the respondents, respectively, thought that government policy favored only the elite and that the majority of high government officials were uninterested in the problems of the poor. In a 2001 survey, 54 percent of the respondents had no trust in government and an additional 34 percent had little or some trust. In a survey conducted in 2004, similarly, 79 percent reported "mistrust or a lot of mistrust" in their government. Most recently, in 2008, 90 percent of the respondents thought political parties had "no loyalty to the people, to public policy, or to development"; 50 percent thought change was not possible; and 57 percent wanted to leave the country.
I am sitting on a broken chair outside a one-room shack that has no electricity, no running water, and a rusted corrugated roof. An extended family lives here. A boy in dirty blue underwear is playing roughly with a chicken, and an old man—himself once a smuggler of migrants—watches at a cautious distance. His curiosity is in conflict with his instinctive distrust. House walls in the distance, unfinished, await money from abroad. And a mule chews with bemused indifference before bending again to graze on its shadow.
I am here to interview a migrant named Jamel. He traveled to Puerto Rico five times by yola, was repatriated on each occasion, and was planning his sixth attempt when we met. Jamel sat on the open end of a bucket and somehow rocked without falling. My butt was stuck in a kicked-out seat that I hoped would detach when I stood up. I took out my digital recorder—a cheap piece of junk—and in context its luxuriousness seemed shameful and indecent. Then I warmed toward the question, the ridiculous, necessary question that I had asked countless times before: Why did you migrate to the United States?
Jamel seemed stunned. His face expressed disdain, almost pity, for my pathetic command of the obvious. "Don't you see how we live here?" he asked, leading my eyes around with his hand. People were drawing water from an outdoor spigot, women washed pans, guts boiled in a black pot on logs. "Everyone there has dollars, a car, a house with air. Look at the air we have here," Jamel said, laughing now, pointing to holes in the walls.
The chronic poverty that Jamel and millions of other Dominicans tolerate, even in periods of economic stability or growth, motivates many to take their chances on a yola. Families struggle for generations without ever becoming, as one immigrant put it, "comfortably poor." Unemployment, underemployment, the insufficiency of infrastructure and social services, the high cost of food in relation to low income, inadequate housing, and social marginalization all contribute to making yola voyages an attractive escape toward a better future. Many cannot find work; others despair from having income insufficient to maintain families; and some complain that undocumented Haitians, who work for less pay, are given the few jobs available and consequently necessitate Dominican migration, particularly after the earthquake in January 2010. "They come here illegally to work," Saúl said, "the same way that I go to Puerto Rico." A domino of migration—Haitians to the Dominican Republic, Dominicans to Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans (along with Haitians and Dominicans) to the mainland United States—has masses of poor people searching for work in what they view as the next step up.
Saúl lives with his pregnant wife and two children in a rented shack with walls made of scrap wood and used corrugated roofing. Their poverty is severe even by local standards. The shack has no furnishings except two beds and a countertop stove. When we met to talk we sat on chairs that Saúl borrowed from his grandmother. "I'm not asking for a fortune or to become a millionaire," Saúl said, expressing the sentiments of many migrants, "just a better way of life. For example I could give my kids a good education. My goal is to get a house in La Vega, where my wife is from, an ordinary house and a little business, maybe a little colmado [neighborhood grocery store], just that, to live."
Many migrants similarly relate a quest for basic economic stability; the "American dream" is hardly on their minds. They are motivated more by a Dominican dream: the alleviation of the struggle for subsistence, acquisition of a decent home ("decent" by poor Dominican standards), improvement of the situation for the next generation ("a future for my children"), and a modest share of disposable income for functional (appliances, motorbikes) and luxury (jewelry, better clothing) consumer goods. With the exception of the fortunate few who have service jobs related to tourism or foreign residents, my informants' employment was generally informal—in fishing, in construction, as motorbike taxi drivers (known as motoconchos), and in odd jobs. Such employment is irregular, unstable, and barely sufficient to meet the basic expenses of food, utilities, clothing, and public transportation. Poor Dominicans regard income on a daily basis rather than the weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis that is customary in formal employment, and the quest, also daily, is to earn enough to feed oneself or one's family.
As explained by Moreno, who is a fisherman, it is hard to support children "because our salary isn't stable." Someone who has a fixed salary knows how much he will make and can plan accordingly. But "in the ocean, today you make 200 pesos, tomorrow 1,000 pesos, the next day you don't make anything, and the next nothing again, and the next." The same is true of construction: one can make $20 or $25 a day during one-week jobs but then go for weeks or months without finding employment at another site. A six-month stretch of unemployment is not uncommon, and for some a period of employment is the exception rather than the rule. Motoconchos can make upwards of $15 a day, but half that is more common and on some days one makes little or nothing. The high price of gas (more than $5 a gallon) erodes earnings, the motorbikes break down and need repairs that are costly even when improvised, and the supply is so disproportionate to the demand—"more motoconchos than people," as Pedro put it—that the work is hardly profitable for anyone.
In view of these bleak options, migration is often a compensatory, transnational means of subsistence: one supports one's family from abroad because there is no work at home. For others, migration has the more or less defined goal of stabilizing one's housing situation. Marta and Sergio, for example, have been struggling for years on irregular income to complete and occupy a cinderblock house that Sergio is building for the family. Marta's failed migration attempt in 2008 was directly motivated by the desire to advance construction that had stalled for lack of money. There is pressure on the couple to complete the house quickly, because the wooden shack in which they are living is leaning visibly toward imminent collapse. Strapped with the burden of construction expenses (and repayment of the money borrowed for the smuggling fee), Marta looks forward to a time when "you only work for food." While many others complain of working just to eat, with nothing left over, Marta's goal in migration and in life is to reach that level of stability. When I last saw Marta and Sergio in June 2010, the house construction had advanced but was far from completion. Marta was more optimistic because she had gotten a part-time job in hotel housekeeping; Sergio was still unemployed.
Marta and Sergio's two residences reflect the common options of poor Dominicans: the traditional wooden house with horizontal slat boards, concrete floor, corrugated metal roof, a kitchen area in a corner, and an outhouse in lieu of an interior bathroom; and the cinderblock house, either with a corrugated metal or flat concrete roof (the latter makes a second story possible) and with an interior bathroom and a separate kitchen. Most properties have electric and water service. The houses are often inherited from or shared with family members, which spares Dominicans with limited income the expenses of rent, construction, and housing-related debt.
The wooden houses are typically rectangular. In the forward section there is an area for cooking, eating, and sitting; the rear section is for sleeping. The two sections are divided by improvised curtains or, in better homes, partitions or walls. The forward section has modest furniture, a tabletop stove, usually a sink, and sometimes a refrigerator, television, or such luxuries as a blender or fan, all of these in poor condition by American standards. There is little or no interior plumbing. The outhouse often has an adjacent area for bucket baths.
In Carlos's house, for example, curtains open from the forward area to two small rooms separated by a thin partition. Carlos, his wife, and their three children (including an infant) sleep in one of the rooms, on side-by-side mattresses that fill the space completely; Carlos's father sleeps in the adjacent room. The better wooden houses, such as Chencho's, are larger and have more clearly defined spaces. Chencho's home is well furnished, has a separate kitchen, and has two bedrooms with walls and doors. This relative luxury contrasts with the other extreme of houses that are barely four walls and a roof. In El Cedro I saw a shack that had no furnishings except a mattress on the floor beside a pile of feed corn for pigs.
The cinderblock houses are highly preferred and, because they are expensive, are generally subsidized by remittances. Arches and pillars contribute to an ornate elegance that appeals to local taste and emits a message of opulence. When construction is completed the interiors are refined and the exterior is pargeted and sometimes painted, but families take residence at various stages of completion. Marta and Sergio, for example, will move into their block house as soon as it habitable and long before it is plumbed and wired and the walls are covered. In some cases, like theirs, construction advances as money becomes available; in other cases income is sufficient to expedite construction and even to expand upward or outward for additional family members or simply for comfort and prestige.
Also common, however, is the abandonment of construction projects because the provider abroad ceases to remit. The unfinished walls on the skyline of many towns and villages attest to such abandonment. Even when new houses are completed and occupied, the life of luxury that they seemed to promise is sometimes fleeting. An extended family sold beachfront land to foreign developers, and Rolando, with his share of the proceeds, built an enviable cinderblock house. The wealth was soon depleted, however, and Rolando's living room is now crowded with beds, like a barracks, to accommodate the many family members who live there.
Most informants relate that about $14 daily is required to support a family of four, but even earning this subsistence income is a challenge. Remittances from abroad theoretically compensate for the lack of domestic earnings, but in current conditions many undocumented migrants abroad struggle even for their own economic survival and can remit little to family members at home. Martina's consensual partner is in Puerto Rico but unable to send remittances, so she supports herself and their three children as best she can. Her part-time job in domestic service paid about $57 a month (less than $2 a day), but Martina's employers returned to Spain. "Now I don't have anything," she said, adding that "sometimes the neighbors give the kids something to eat."
Caridad, who is also unemployed, lives with her three children in an apartment improvised in a small building. Her monthly rent is about $29 and it is difficult for her to meet that expense. Her ex-partner migrated by yola successfully in 2003, but he does not send remittances to support their children. When I asked how she manages to survive economically, Caridad started to cry, interrupting the sobs with repetition of "alone, alone." Sometimes she finds temporary work, sometimes her mother and brother in Santo Domingo help out, but Caridad's struggle is constant.
For many families in rural areas, purchased food is supplemented by household fruit and vegetable gardens known as conucos. Chicho explains: "Here in the country it's easier. I myself have a garden with yucca, I have plantains that I plant myself, and if I have this food, with a little oil I can eat an egg. If there's nothing else, we can eat that. It's easier in the country, but not in town. In town you have to buy everything with money."
Rural and town dwellers alike are nevertheless dependent to varying degrees on purchased food that they can hardly afford. The purchases are generally made at colmados that find ways to accommodate the poverty and irregular incomes of their frequent customers. Limited credit is one way; another is to sell small portions for daily consumption. One may buy, for example, 15 cents' worth of tomato paste that the colmado owner measures and scoops into a little plastic bag or 50 cents' worth of oil that he measures in one bottle and then pours through a funnel into another brought by the customer.
In addition to food, most other necessities of everyday life (such as clothing and household supplies) must be purchased with cash. Sergio pointed out that in the past—even his past—almost everything was homemade or passed down through generations, but now everything is purchased. Diapers are a good example; they used to be cloth, washed, and reused, and now they are purchased and disposable. Many mothers cannot afford these diapers, Marta said, and even milk—the relatively inexpensive powered milk they reconstitute—is unaffordable. As Marta and Sergio talked I realized that they were describing the end of traditional agricultural subsistence and the integration of the Dominican Republic into world capitalism, which made millions of people, like them, the consumers of domestic and imported products. I was also reminded of the colonial repartimiento de mercancías through which Spanish colonists forced indigenous populations into wage labor by requiring them to purchase manufactured goods.
As my informants related their stories I could hear their entrapment in deprivation but also in the absurdity that results when deprivation becomes routinized. They have grown accustomed to the consequences of the poverty that they share with their communities, which makes objective assessment all the more unlikely. Martina has a job prospect but no money for the bus fare to the interview; Altagracia got a fish but cannot cook it because the propane tank is empty; Yolanda missed a medical appointment for her infant daughter, who won't eat, because the consultation is unaffordable; and Johnny got a free consultation but has no money to buy the prescribed medicine. When I asked Francisco what old people do if they have no pension and no one to provide for them, he replied nonchalantly, without irony, "You die faster." Marisol, who works as a maid, said her father had twenty children but six of them died as infants. With the same matter-of-fact tone as Francisco she added, "It was too many. I don't think there was enough food."
Such chronic poverty predisposes yola voyages, and economic fluctuations then affect the volume. When economic stability or growth is sufficient for potential migrants to maintain a modest standard of living, migration is deferred; and when stagnation or decline undermines hope for the future and aggravates the daily struggle for subsistence, migration increases. "There is an extremely strong correlation between the performance of the Dominican economy and the rate of migration," explains the Coast Guard intelligence analyst who monitors migrant flow in the Caribbean.
That correlation was clearly illustrated by the economic crises in the 1980s and the 1990s, which caused huge increases in Dominican migration. In 2003 another crisis was accelerated by a $2.2 billion embezzlement, the subsequent collapse of the Banco Intercontinental (known as Baninter), and a Dominican government bailout that depleted an estimated 65 percent of the annual national budget. The consequences for an already impoverished population were devastating. As summarized in a report by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, "The 2003-2004 economic crisis brought a dramatic deterioration of real incomes and poverty levels. About 16 percent of the Dominican population (1.5 million) became poor and about 7 percent (670 thousand) fell in extreme poverty." In fiscal year 2002, just prior to the crisis, the Coast Guard estimated a total flow of 2,284 undocumented migrants from the Dominican Republic. In fiscal year 2004, during the crisis, the flow increased to 11,115.
The severity of poverty varies widely by region, often in relation to the availability of jobs related to tourism. The poor economic conditions in Sánchez, for example, motivate migration, while the growing tourist industry in nearby Las Terrenas provides jobs (in construction and in services to tourists and expatriates) that alleviate the pressure to migrate. People migrate from Sánchez, Milagros relates, because families there cannot survive by the three work options—fishing, harvesting coconuts, and taxiing passengers by motorbike—that are already saturated. Moreno added that "we're 21,000 people who depend on that little piece of ocean, on shrimp and fish, to make a living." He then explained that the ocean there is overfished and depleted, that the cost of gas undermines the profit, and that they cannot sell the catch when tourism is low. Moreno concluded that people who cannot earn enough are "obligated by poverty to migrate." When people "can't take the situation," Valdesio said, "one of the possibilities they always have are the [yola] trips."
In previous decades, social discontent and government incompetence in Latin America tended to foment political activism and revolution, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Protests and nationwide strikes continued in the Dominican Republic into the 1990s and to some degree still occur today, but in general the political activism of previous generations no longer predominates as a means to express discontent or implement change. Past experiences (including the 1965–1966 U.S. occupation) have made armed insurrection seem pointless, collective social action has been "effectively demobilized," and most Dominicans have lost faith in the political system's capacity to address the needs of an impoverished majority. Rather than protests or revolutions, consequently, the mobilization of poor people takes an alternate form, migration. By "voting with their feet," Dominicans implicitly register their demoralization and loss of hope in domestic solutions. Poverty is still confronted actively and creatively, but the form now, migration, projects the hope outward.
The economic situation in the United States, including Puerto Rico, has a direct effect on undocumented migration from the Dominican Republic. When jobs in the United States became scarce beginning in 2008, the bad news was disseminated by media, by return migrants, and by relatives abroad, many of whom sent dwindling remittances. Just as poor economic conditions in the Dominic Republic motivate migration, poor economic conditions in the United States deter it. Hard times also make it difficult for unemployed and underemployed immigrants in the United States to support the yola voyages of their relatives.
A slowed U.S. and global economy, however, can also motivate migration rather than deter it. The motivation occurs when repercussions of foreign economic crises are detrimental to the Dominican economy in ways that imbue a sense of urgency among potential migrants. A decrease in tourism, exports, construction, and services results in the loss of jobs that sustain poor Dominican families. Economic well-being is relative, and even the recessed United States can seem like paradise if the Dominican situation deteriorates sufficiently. For this reason, together with factors of self-perpetuation and migrant compulsion, labor migration continues after the demand has been saturated. The deterrent of limited options abroad is neutralized or overwhelmed by the urgency of the domestic situation. There is also frequent recourse to relativity: however bad it is there, it has got to be better than here.
Even in the best of circumstances, undocumented migration is a precarious means of advancement. The general presumption among migrants, potential migrants, and outside observers is that migration is profitable, but migration often perpetuates and aggravates the very poverty that it endeavors to alleviate. Migrants find themselves caught in the likeness of a moebius strip: poverty is conducive to migration that is conducive to poverty. This occurs for many reasons. The most common is the loss of cash (often borrowed) and possessions when yola voyages fail. Migrants sell or pawn anything that they own—and sometimes, with or without consent, that relatives own—to pay smuggling fees. When cash, motorbikes, appliances, jewelry, electronics, livestock, businesses, land, and houses are lost to failed migration attempts, individuals and families are yet more severely impoverished. The trip fails, the dream crashes, and migrants return to financial situations worse than those they had fled.
Christian was convinced that his trip was likely to succeed, because the captain had many previous successes. "And you say, 'OK, Dad has a cow, I'm going to sell it so I can go on that trip, and then I'll send my dad the money.'" But the trip failed, and Christian wound up without "the trip or the cow or anything." Moreno similarly referred to rural Dominicans who sell everything and wind up "without Puerto Rico, without a farm, and without a house." Many feel compelled to keep trying—Gordito tried five times, Caridad three times, Miguel six times—and with each failed attempt fall deeper into poverty.
Rubén, who migrated through Mexico, spent a total of around $12,000, including the $4,000 bail he lost when he absconded from immigration detention. He borrowed the money from his brother and other relatives in New York, and while he was working there, trying to repay the debt, he received a request from a friend. This Dominican migrant had flown to Panama, traveled through Central America, and gotten arrested as he crossed into Mexico while en route to the United States. He needed $1,000 to bail out, so his friends and relatives, themselves poor and in debt, took a collection—one gave $100, another $50—to help him continue toward the border. The friend was caught upon entry to the United States and repatriated, so all the money that he invested and that was invested in him saw no returns. Rubén was also repatriated and those who lent him money likewise became relatively poorer. Neither of the families of these two migrants received remittances because the earnings never exceeded the expenses and debt, and the families of migrants who lent money to Rubén and the friend received less remittances because the money was diverted to other causes. Failed migration attempts thus adversely affect the migrant but also have ripple effects that further impoverish others.
I asked Salvador what would happen if all of the money that one loses on failed migration attempts were invested instead in building a life in the Dominican Republic. "One thinks that after one goes and sees the reality." Morena (a female migrant, not to be confused with Moreno) elaborated: "If back then I would have thought about it, doing business here with what I spent on the trips, I would have had some capital. But I asked and asked and asked [for money], and now I don't have either the capital or the trip. You think I'll spend 100 [thousand pesos] here and in a year I'll recuperate it there. You don't think that you're going to lose. You think you're going to earn." Sonia said migrants could succeed in the Dominican Republic if they applied themselves diligently, but instead they envision easy money abroad. Raising a migration fee and establishing a successful business are two very different tasks. One is short-term; the other requires perseverance, ingenuity, and diligence, and even with these can easily fail.
When dreams evolve along business lines they tend to gravitate toward the familiar. The independence of self-employment is highly desirable to poor Dominicans, particularly in a context of limited employment opportunities, but a lack of capital and of business imagination usually results in redundant proliferation. A colmado is the favored choice and, consequently, the least likely to succeed. Orlando was more original—he established a massage business—but the business produces no income for lack of referrals from hotels. Orlando now hopes to buy a van for tourist transportation but has no capital nor a means to raise it, and the idea itself might be unviable. I pointed to a dozen tourist vans empty and parked nearby, with their drivers playing dominos or sleeping in the shade, but Orlando's conviction was unfazed. Others with greater business sense and relatively more capital, like Raúl, are more astute in their planning. Upon anticipated retirement to Santo Domingo, Raúl envisions importing and selling auto parts. Chicho hopes to open a pawn shop, and Sonia opened a nail salon in her home.
Migration also contributes to impoverishment when the anticipated income from abroad does not reach the dependent family. The household earner is gone, ostensibly for the purpose of generating greater income, but instead the absence is doubled: no earner and no income. Altagracia's husband earned about $12 a day in the Dominican Republic but migrated by yola because that income was insufficient to support his family. At first the husband sent money regularly from Puerto Rico; now he is unemployed and, until that changes, sends nothing. Abandonment is also common, usually by men who migrate with the intention of supporting a family but make new attachments once away from home. Impoverishment also results when the household supporter dies at sea or is imprisoned in the United States. Ramona lost her spouse in April 2009 on a yola that sank en route to Puerto Rico. She could no longer afford the house the couple was renting for $26 a month, and when I met her she was pregnant and living with two children in a room improvised behind the partial walls of a cinderblock house that her sister was gradually constructing. Ramona had to discontinue studies in a language and tourism program because it was unaffordable without her spouse's support.
Sometimes advancement fails and poverty is aggravated for reasons well within the migrant's control. I asked Chicho why he succeeded as a migrant and many others fail, and he responded, "There are all kinds of people." Some are devoted to their families, honest and hardworking, and others "drink the money, smoke it in drugs, give it to girls. They make money but leave it there, they waste it, throw it away." "It wasn't that I didn't drink," Chicho added, but he would leave home with only $10 to avoid spending more in a bar.
Delgadino was less self-controlled. Of male migrants generally he said, "Sometimes we go out drinking, others we go looking for women, once in a while we find work but other times we're out on the street, and sometimes we come to nothing." Then he added his personal experience: "The majority of cocky young guys—I'm going to include myself, because I arrived with a goal too but then you don't want to leave the discotheque, you don't want to leave a bar. That's the problem. I made money but spent it in the street." Morena has a friend who has been in Puerto Rico for twenty years and never got his residency, never returned for a visit, and will probably have to borrow the money to fly home: "He has nothing to show for his sacrifice, not even a palm tree to give him some shade." "They spend and spend," Altagracia said, "without thinking tomorrow I have to go home." And when they return, usually because of deportation, people say, "Look at so-and-so. He came back and didn't bring anything. He came back worse than he was here before."
Forced Free Choice
In its broadest sense, forced migration results not only from the persecution, political violence, and natural disasters that cause people to flee for their lives but also from social and economic conditions that jeopardize security and well-being. The tendency in policy, law, media, and public opinion is to sharply distinguish between those who migrate voluntarily (economic migrants, "illegals") and those who are forced to migrate because their lives are endangered (political migrants, refugees). That distinction, though valid in itself, erroneously implies that economic migrants are not to some degree forced to leave their home countries. They flee not because their lives are in imminent danger of harm but rather because their lives—in the sense of "This is my life, and I want to make something of it"—are foreclosed and jeopardized, and their livelihoods are insecure. They feel compelled to migrate, the compulsion is fostered by forces beyond their control, and they literally risk their lives to escape unbearable situations.
In this sense their ostensibly voluntary migration is analogous to "voluntary return" after arrest at the border. Migrants choose to leave the United States "voluntarily" after unaffordable and dangerous journeys because their other option, "indefinite" immigration detention, which some believe (and are led to believe) means life imprisonment, seems the greater evil. The choice to return voluntarily, like the choice to leave the Dominican Republic, is a conditioned act of volition.
Sonia explained that advancement requires migration and that the migrant and that migrants and their families are obligated mutually. Her husband migrated by yola in 2009, leaving her behind with a baby daughter. "He'll have to work and stick it out there for a lot of years in order to make something, in order to be able to live a normal life," she said. The situation stresses the family as a whole, here and there, "but that's the reality, even though you might not want to believe it, even though you might not want to live it, but that's the reality and you have to accept it, obligatorily."
Migration is voluntary insofar as one makes the conscious decision to embark, while others in a similar situation opt to stay home; and it is involuntary insofar as the choice is forced by external aggravating factors. Most poor Dominicans, in fact, chose not to migrate or never consider the choice. Through this default option they acquiesce to poverty. Their forbearance is a tacit submission or resignation, and consequently they habitually, nonconsciously perpetuate the conditions in which they at once feel trapped. This occurs for multiple reasons such as family ties, responsibilities, inertia, aversion to the journey, relative contentment, and because individual choices are constrained and conditioned by history, belief systems, values, gender, race and ethnicity, media, income, and countless other variables operative in everyday life. "The status quo exerts such a powerful hold on us, whether or not it serves our interests, and whether or not we are aware of its influence."
Those who do migrate are also affected by pressures—structural and cultural—of which they are largely unaware. Their choice is free, but their volition is constricted by imposed limitations. This situation was illustrated in the extreme by 9/11 victims jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center. They made this unthinkable choice against their interest and will—one after the other, in a steady stream—not because jumping was appealing but rather because they were caught between fire and the sky and jumping seemed their best option. Their best option: jumping from a building. The choice was forced because their volition was trapped and pressured.
There is an obvious difference in severity between jumping to one's death and boarding a yola, but there is also a more nuanced distinction. The 9/11 choice was sudden and unanticipated, an impulsive response to crisis, an urgency forced by encroaching, unbearable heat. In the Dominican case, conversely, the decisions to migrate by yola—even when they are spontaneous—are slowly induced by conditions that evolve for generations. Freedom to choose is contingent on access to opportunities, and the inadequate access experienced chronically by families and communities makes adverse choices attractive. A complex of deprivations resulting from poverty (inadequate housing, education, and health care; struggle without benefit; a sense of futility and entrapment) fosters the viability and attractiveness of yola migration. However intrinsically undesirable it may be to risk one's life at sea, this option is sanitized and idealized by conditions (like the fire and smoke) that push one to the edge.
In its broadest sense, poverty refers not only to limited income but also to limited opportunities that handicap human development, socioeconomic advancement, and one's chances of living a fulfilled, productive, and dignified life. Migration should be a free and informed choice rather than a desperate and risky necessity, and states should "guarantee, at least, the right not to emigrate." Choosing between chronic poverty and a life-threatening journey that might modestly alleviate that poverty is hardly a freedom of choice. Migrants perceive that they have no choice, many say so explicitly, and their departure in this perspective is a willful confrontation of adverse limitations (structural poverty, the ocean, border enforcement) that restrict their freedom and movement.