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Discrimination fuels harsh policies for Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic

At the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. File 2012. (Credit: Alex Proimos/Flickr)

In an effort to stop Haitian migrants from entering the country, the Dominican Republic has been enforcing increasingly strict immigration policies. The most recent attempts to control illegal immigration have escalated with the use of military troops, renewing an ongoing conversation about discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

The current crackdown, which the Dominican government dubbed “Operation Shield,” placed more than 2,000 troops along its border with Haiti. According to the Associated Press, the Dominican Republic deploys extra troops at the border every January to stop migrants as they return from the holidays, as well as Haitian migrant workers who enter the country in search of work.

Operation Shield reflects a broader tightening of immigration policy in the Dominican Republic, which has made efforts to weed out Haitians and their descendants in its territory for decades. These are people who have long struggled for their legal rights, and are still socially marginalized and exploited for cheap labor, according to the New York Times.

The dispute over who is entitled to citizenship in the Dominican Republic spiraled into a panic last June. After stripping an estimated 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their right to citizenship, officials threatened to deport thousands before the end of the month.

Human rights advocates have criticized the government’s decision to revoke citizenship from Dominican-born people, according to Al Jazeera, saying the decision left hundreds of thousands of people effectively stateless (a claim the Dominican government rejects), since many have no connection to Haiti. According to Quartz, many of those affected don’t even speak Creole or French – the official languages of Haiti – because they grew up speaking Spanish since birth in the Dominican Republic.

Supporters of the controversial policy maintain that the only individuals affected are illegal Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, and not the hundreds of thousands of those who were born in the Dominican Republic but have Haitian heritage.

“We understand that people are concerned that some people could have been left out of the process,” said a spokesman for the Dominican government, Josue Fiallo, in an interview with Al Jazeera. “We understand that, and we are trying to put in place mechanisms to try and find these people and bring them into one of the categories that we have created. So I think that the magnitude of the problem is not as it has been portrayed.”

The Dominican government has offered to recognize the nationality of those who already had a Dominican birth certificate, and launched a program to provide legal residency to foreigners who could prove they had been living in the country since before October of 2011, according to the AP.

But the Dominican government’s program to register the illegal migrants who fell into citizenship limbo has so far been ineffective. According to Al Jazeera, many poor families in rural regions of the country find the government programs too expensive and too complex to navigate.

Today, an estimated 300,000 are thought to be in the country without legal status, according to an ABC News report. Officials have issued repeated warnings that anyone without legal residency faces deportation. At least 5,000 have so far been deported, but there have been no mass roundups. An estimated 70,000 have also crossed the border into Haiti on their own, out of fear of deportation or in an attempt to flee racial violence.

Discrimination in the Dominican Republic against this minority group dates back decades, according to the New York Times, with its roots in the enslavement of Africans on the west side of the island (modern day Haiti). Much like what occurred in the darker moments of U.S. history, propaganda and a skewed concept of nationalism in the Dominican Republic fostered endemic racism against their darker skinned Haitian neighbors to the west. Haitians are still acutely aware of the prejudice that still permeates Dominican culture, and after the recent threat of deportation, those with Haitian heritage are understandably angry and frightened.

“There are a lot of people that think there is going to be war,” Peres Yves Jean said to the New York Times. “I don’t know how. But they say it in the news. They say all the words. So the people, they don’t know what the government is going to do.”

As the situation grows increasingly complex, accusations against the Dominican government for perpetuating discrimination against Haitians have grown louder.

“The Dominican Republic is using the guise of immigration control to push thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, including ‘black-profiled’ Dominicans out of the country,” said Giles Charleston, co-founder and board member of the Association of Haitian Professionals in an interview with Quartz.

“It is not just an issue pertinent to DR and Haiti, but a larger issue concerning justice and human dignity that should compel every person around the [world]to stand up and not sit on the sidelines,” Charleston told Quartz.

But while it is easy to blame Dominicans for the Haitian migrant crisis, the situation is more complicated than many media channels are giving credit. The Dominican nationalists demanding the deportation of haitianos are not so unlike the extremists we have here in the U.S. And, like in the United States, there are many members of the Dominican community who have expressed direct opposition to discriminatory immigration policies. Dominican groups that combat racism, like We Are All Dominicans, have made admirable efforts in both their home country and the United States, leading an example against discrimination that deserves recognition.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at