Deportation Deadline Looms for Nearly a Quarter-Million Haitians

Many people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic are effectively stateless.

Haitians stand outside the Ministry of Interior and Police in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, while waiting to register. (Photo: Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)

Jun 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Thursday, the Dominican Republic may begin deporting nearly a quarter-million Haitians and people of Haitian descent who’ve been living and working in the country. The potential mass deportation is a developing human rights crisis and is the result of a 2013 ruling by the Dominican Republic’s highest court that people born in the country are not guaranteed citizenship. The decision overwhelmingly affects people born to Haitian parents and was applied retroactively to any person of Haitian descent born in the country after 1929—including people who have built their entire lives in the country and have little or no roots in the country across the Rio Masacre, the river that divides the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola.

To understand what’s at stake, consider the bloody history between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Historically, Haitians have been condemned for being blacker than lighter-skinned Dominicans, contributing to years of racial profiling of black Dominicans, Dominican Haitians, and migrant Haitians. For more than a hundred years, the Spanish controlled the island of Hispaniola; in the late 1700s, Spain ceded the part of the island that is now Haiti to France. Haiti became independent from France in 1804 and controlled the Dominican Republic from 1822 until 1844, as part of its mission to unify the island.

In 1937, under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican army was directed to kill tens of thousands of Haitians living along the country’s border. Soldiers went door to door asking residents to pronounce perejil, the Spanish word for "parsley." People whose pronunciation revealed a Haitian Creole accent were killed. Trujillo was known for his quest to “lighten” the face of the Dominican Republic. In the same year as the parsley massacre, Trujillo encouraged Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust to resettle in his country. This generosity was a thinly veiled attempt to “whiten” the country by pairing white European men with darker-skinned Dominican women.

Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic relied heavily on the labor of Haitian immigrants to drive its sugarcane industry. The migration of Haitian workers to the sugarcane fields of the Dominican Republic began in the 20th century; today an estimated 90 percent of sugarcane workers are Haitian or of Haitian descent. Many of these migrant workers permanently settled in the Dominican Republic, in some cases without documents, and steadily moved into other parts of the agriculture and construction industries. Slowly, they became a visible segment of the Dominican Republic’s population. But their status remained relatively low. “Haitians now do the bottom-most jobs that many Dominicans don’t want to do,” Bridget Wooding, the director of Obmica, a think tank in Santo Domingo that focuses on the right to nationality and migration in the Dominican Republic, told TakePart.

In the past 18 months, the Dominican government has tried to give people of Haitian descent the opportunity to register for citizenship documents. However, human rights experts say that many people still do not have these documents. Wooding told TakePart the registration process was cumbersome, slow, and convoluted, leaving many people without papers. “Not only was this law inadequate in the face of a massive human rights violation, but its implementation and practice has been extremely poor,” Wooding said.

The origins of this human rights dilemma stem from the embattled history of the two countries, the Dominican Republic’s demand for cheap labor, and the racial tension between the two. “In a way, the very definition of Dominican-ness is really not being Haitian,” Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of Latin American politics and international relations at Florida International University, told TakePart. “How you define a nation and its ethnic identity is often really a negation of somebody they fought against.”

The line between lighter and darker skin has played a troubling role in the Dominican Republic’s deportation process. There are an average of 30,000 deportations each year of irregular Haitian migrants, sometimes by the busload. “In the past, there has been little due process,” Wooding said. “It’s often done based on racial profiling. People are mistakenly deported based on appearance and ancestry.”

It remains unclear how things will unfold on Thursday. Gamarra does not expect a mass deportation. “Haiti can’t absorb them,” he told TakePart. “It will be an ongoing process. The Dominicans, more than anybody else, do not want the bad publicity.” Still, he said it’s important for the international community to continue to put pressure on the Dominican Republic to respect the human rights of those entangled in the documentation process.

On the ground in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, the mood is tense. “People are getting desperate,” Wooding said. “There’s a lot of anxiety about how this will pan out.”