Soldiers close a border gate on a Haitian man who was hoping to cross into Dajabon, Dominican Republic, November 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File)
In the Dominican Republic, Haitian migrants or any dark-skinned Black person can be arrested, have their belongings seized, and be deported from that country. Anti-Haitian sentiment and legislation is a mainstay of Dominican politics.
This article was originally published in Latino Rebels.
SAN JUAN — Videos have flooded out of the Dominican Republic in recent days showing security forces corralling Black people outside their homes and loading them into cages on migrant control trucks to be carted off and, presumably, placed in detention centers or deported.
These arrests are a drastic ramp-up of President Luis Abinader’s anti-Haitian policies enabled through Decree 688-22 and issued on Friday. The decree, which has yet to be signed into law, was issued “for the prevention and persecution of invasions and irregular occupations of private and state property,” the order reads.
It also creates a new specialized division of the National Police whose sole purpose is to pursue “foreigners” that illegally occupy such properties.
“At any moment they can take us because we’re Haitian and they don’t want us on their land,” an undocumented Haitian immigrant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisal, told Latino Rebels.
A large share of Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic come seeking better living conditions and jobs that can help them escape the turmoil in their home country. The unnamed Haitian immigrant who spoke with Latino Rebels said he and his partner initially came to the Dominican Republic because they were looking for work and because “there was no security in Haiti.”
More than 4,500 people were arrested on Monday alone with the intent to deport them, according to official figures provided by the Dominican government. Venancio Alcántara, director of migration, has aimed to deport about 20,000 people, mostly Haitians, since he came into office in August.
“Every day we can’t find work. My wife can’t find work. The police are mistreating us,” the Haitian immigrant told Latino Rebels.
One night, while returning to their home, he and his partner attempted to circumvent immigration police by getting into a taxi, only for a man pretending to be an immigration officer to stop them and steal their phones and wallet. After being robbed, they say that people in the street came to their aid and helped them get back home.
“We are still living with stress,” the Haitian man said. “Yes, they (the Dominican government) are always angry because they (Haitians) are there.”
The Haitian man and his partner live in a tent on the outskirts of a town in the southern Dominican Republic surrounded by improvised dwellings. Such communities are known as “bateyes,” Spanish for a plantation workers’ town, and it is these types of settlements that the decree refers to as “irregular occupations.”
A Shared History
Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, with the D.R. covering a little less than two-thirds of the island’s total area—though Haiti has around half a million more inhabitants than its neighbor, whose population stands at roughly 11 million.
Haiti, formerly a French colony, gained its independence in 1804—becoming the first Latin American nation to do so, as well as the first to abolish slavery and the first nation in the world established by a revolution of enslaved Africans. The Dominican Republic, formerly a Spanish colony, came under Haitian occupation but gained its independence in 1844.
In the 20th century, as Haiti was in dire financial straits due to the colonial debt imposed on it by France and the United States, Haiti and the Dominican Republic signed bilateral agreements allowing Haitians to work the sugar plantations in the D.R. during peak production periods. Over the years, migrants remained in the bateyes and formed communities of Haitians and Dominicans.
These communities have historically been provided with fewer public services by the Dominican government, a fact which is often attributed to anti-Haitian sentiment. Conditions within the bateyes vary, but many are forced to sleep on cardboard without running water or electricity.
One video that has surfaced in the wake of Decree 688-22 shows a bulldozer tearing through a batey while security forces keep onlookers at bay. Children are seen running up to watch their former homes torn down, while one person off-camera screams, “Damn! What abuse!”
Similar scenes have played out across the Caribbean nation, where thousands have lost their homes and even more fear deportation.
The Anti-Haitian Decrees
Decree 688-22 is significant among recent government moves as it specifically targets people without a deed to their house, which is particularly common in the poorer areas of the Dominican Republic where many Haitians live.
In addition, the decree instructs Dominican consulates in the countries where people are deported to that they must create a list of foreign citizens violating the decree, with the purpose of banning such persons from reentry.
“We have no one to defend us,” the Haitian immigrant told Latino Rebels. “We have no president to say a word for us.”
Abinader and his government have remained critical of Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic, adopting many of the talking points common to nationalist leaders around the world voicing strong anti-immigration views. The president has said, for example, that Haitians bring crime and poverty into the country, echoing what then-candidate Donald Trump said when he launched his presidential campaign in 2015.
Such anti-Haitian rhetoric has led to many Haitians without migration papers being denied basic services like medical care.
One recent, disturbing video shows a woman, identified as being of “Haitian nationality” by a speaker, forced to give birth right outside the emergency wing of the Melanciano Hospital in Jimaní. “We arrived here and the doctors don’t want to attend us,” says a man in the video
“The migration problem —the Haitian question— in the Dominican Republic is ‘Old Faithful’ used by politicians to say they’re working and safeguarding nationalism,” artist and activist Alicia Méndez Medina told Latino Rebels.
Traditionally, the 240-mile-long border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has been quite porous, allowing people to flow from one country into another with relative ease. In February, the government began construction of a 118-mile wall along the border that the government says will “guarantee border security.”
While security at the border has tightened, the escalation in violence following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 has driven more Haitians to come to the Dominican Republic.
“You can’t ask more from the Dominican Republic,” Abinader said in response to the United Nations’ chief human rights agency calling on the country to halt rising deportations of Haitian migrants.
Several activists tell Latino Rebels that they believe Abinader issued Decree 688-22 as a direct response to the U.N.’s request to halt deportations because of “unremitting armed violence and systematic human rights violations in Haiti,” according to a written statement from the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk.
“Not only will the Dominican Republic continue deportations, but it will increase them,” Abinader said.
More than 43,000 migrants, mostly Haitian, were deported between July and October, according to the Dominican government, saying that the number of deportations increased by 50 percent between September and October.
“We are faced with incredibly dangerous massive deportation campaigns that could possibly transform into a campaign of ethnic cleansing if Dominican society does not demonstrate democratic reflexes and put a stop to the government,” said various political and human rights organizations in the Dominican Republic in a written statement after the surge in arrests.
Anti-Haitianism as an ideology has a long history in the Dominican Republic.
In 2013, the courts issued Judgement TC 168-13, called “La Sentencia,” which stripped more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship by eliminating birthright citizenship for anyone whose parents weren’t Dominican citizens or legal residents. The decision was made retroactive, affecting those born between 1929 and 2010, thus depriving citizenship to additional thousands of people of Haitian descent.
Citizenship, the courts argued in their justifications for the ruling, is a “set of historical, linguistic, racial, and geopolitical traits” not a “legal bond.”
“I lived, truly, what it means to feel pressure from the government,” Félix Callo, who was born in the Dominican Republic and then denationalized by La Sentencia in 2014, told Latino Rebels.
‘Just Being Black Means You’re Haitian’
While Decree 688-22 specifically targets “foreigners,” documented Haitian immigrants, denationalized Dominicans, and Black Dominicans fear they will be picked up by the raids.
“The only thing you can have is panic,” Callo told Latino Rebels. “We can call it panic —fear— because when you go onto the street being the son of immigrants or having Black skin —which is one of the situations that has greatly affected this country— you won’t be recognized as Dominican.”
It is common for the D.R.’s immigration police to target people on public transit, forcing them off buses to check their papers and leaving many without money to get back on a bus if they were not taken.
Callo says he was thrown off a bus by the driver, only to be taken by soldiers to a jail where he was “investigated,” his birth certificate called into question, and asked for the names of his school teachers.
“None of it was necessary, all the time we lost,” Callo recalled.
Some Haitians, whether denationalized by La Sentencia in 2013 or having arrived since then, refuse to leave their homes for fear they will be detained.
One video, first published by Noticias Telemicro, shows security forces dragging a man from his home in Dajabón as witnesses yell, “He’s Dominican! He’s Dominican!”
“Just being Black in this country means you’re Haitian,” Callo told Latino Rebels.
Earlier in the year, Méndez Medina, who’s not of Haitian descent, left her job in the north because she feared being picked up by police due to the color of her skin. She echoes Callo in saying that, in the Dominican Republic, anybody with dark skin is considered Haitian. She rarely leaves her house now if she can avoid it, mostly choosing to stay close to home and away from public transit.
While Méndez Medina is a Dominican citizen, there have been cases where Dominicans and documented Haitian migrants have been arrested by immigration police while simply driving around town.
Roudy Joseph, a human rights activist and documented Haitian immigrant, was arrested by Dominican police as he filmed other Haitian immigrants being arrested. The police asked him for his papers, which he did not have on him at the time, and they dragged him into the back of a truck where they attempted to take his cell phone and force him to delete the videos and pictures he had taken.
“They want to take everything from you, so you can’t take photos or anything,” Joseph said.
He says the officers were going to drag him to the Haina Vacation Center, a fancy name for what is essentially a migrant camp, before transporting him to the border. But Joseph pleaded with them to let him make a phone call, as was his legal right, and he managed to get in touch with friends who he instructed to bring his papers to the police station where he was being held.
All told, Joseph was in custody for two hours before a police superior let him go.
“These aren’t in any condition to hold people,” Joseph said.
People held in vacation centers are sometimes not allowed to sit down and are forced to stand for more than 24 hours before being taken to the border for deportation. After the decree was enacted, however, people are seemingly being taken to the border the same day they are arrested.
One video shared to Latino Rebels shows a scenario similar to Joseph’s ordeal, with police at a checkpoint forcing some people out of their cars and putting them in the back of a police truck.
Through his work, Joseph has spoken with dozens of people who have had similar experiences and even some who have made it all the way to the border before police stripped them down of their cell phones and whatever cash they had on hand. Several activists echoed Joseph, calling the deportations part of a “racket” meant to extort money from vulnerable Haitian migrants.
After the decree came into effect, some Haitian immigrants have even stopped staying in their homes, instead opting to sleep in nearby construction sites or abandoned lots where they hope police will not find them.
“We’re living through a desperate situation,” Joseph said.
Years ago, while still in the process to getting his identification card, Callo’s civics school teacher asked him what he would like to change if he got to live all over again. He did not have an immediate answer for her in class, but while meditating on the question now, the answer came to him.
“I wish I had been born in a country where my nationality wasn’t denied just for being Black,” Callo said.
Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco is the Caribbean correspondent for Latino Rebels, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @Vaquero2XL