FIU hopes to analyze Colombian influx into South FloridaBy Paola Iuspa
Florida International University may soon have a fully developed research program to track the influx of Colombians settling in South Florida to escape social upheavals shaking the Latin American nation.
The Colombia Studies Institute would track the number of Colombians moving to the area now subject to widely varying estimates and the economic implications.
The program will be part of efforts at FIU's Latin American & Caribbean Center headed by Eduardo Gamarra.
"Many times, scholars realize something is happening when the phenomenon is already over," Dr. Gamarra said. "By then, there is very little they can do. We want to come up with statistics on the Colombian diaspora and be part of the process."
The study will be done by June if the program, estimated to cost more than $1 million, can win enough federal funding, Dr. Gamarra said.
"It also came as a need to provide an independent monitoring body to the US Plan for Colombia," he said. "We want to offer constructive criticism."
Dr. Gamarra referred to $1.3 billion the US Congress approved two months ago to help Colombia combat drug trafficking and the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who are allegedly supported by drug profits.
Dr. Gamarra said the program, now in its early stages, will consist of meeting with community leaders and business people, holding focus groups with newcomers and conducting surveys in areas with a large concentration of Colombians.
The results would shed light on unsubstantiated numbers being tossed around and determine how many Colombians actually reside in South Florida, own businesses, attend public schools, buy or rent homes and maintain legal residency, he said.
"We think there are about 450,000 Colombians in South Florida," Dr. Gamarra said. "But some other groups believe there are around 250,000. The truth is there is no data available."
Although the US census will present preliminary results in February, Dr. Gamarra said, the "information may not be accurate because many Colombian who are not legal residents may have not completed the census form."
Joaquin Perez, vice president of Hispanic Trends, a year-old research company based in Coral Gables, said Colombians are about to become the second largest group in South Florida.
"First comes the Cubans," Mr. Perez said. "The second place is being contested between Colombians and Nicaraguans. Puerto Ricans used to be second. Now they are fourth."
Mr. Perez said his company gets its information from census bureau data and polls.
The increase of Colombian families in South Florida mirrors information reported by the Colombian publication Semana.
More than 500,000 Colombians a year are seeking to enter the US compared to 150,000 in the mid-'80s, according to Semana.
Manuel Maria Marquez, president of American Business Consultants Corp., based on Blue Lagoon Drive, said the number of Colombians seeking advice on investing and opening corporation subsidiaries in Miami has doubled in two years.
"Many of them are financially solid and highly educated," he said. "Entrepreneurial people are an important asset for any community."
Many of the newcomers buy gas stations, laundromats, retail stores and real estate, Mr. Marquez said.
Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Colombians were called "the invisible community," Mr. Marquez said. "They didn't stick together. They stayed away from each other. Because they didn't group, nobody really knew where they were. It had to do with the reputation Colombia had and its problem with drug trafficking."
As the world becomes more aware of that country's war against drug production, Colombians feel better about themselves and don't mind forming colonies.
"You found them in Kendall and Hialeah," Mr. Marquez said.
"Weston in Broward County is known as Little Colombia," said Jose Victor Lewis, director of the Colombian Chamber of Commerce in Coral Gables. "Key Biscayne is very popular among Colombians."
But Mr. Lewis said not all Colombians coming here are investors or bring big sums with them.
"Many come here looking for job opportunities," he said. "The unemployment rate in Colombia is close to 20%."
The US Department of Education awarded FIU a Title VI grant for the sixth time in 20 years to fund the Latin American and Caribbean Center the next three years.
Other recipients of Title VI grants include Columbia University, New York University, Duke, the University of North Carolina, Harvard, Indiana University and Notre Dame, Dr. Gamarra said.
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