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Deportation fears on rise in Dominican Republic

Thursday - 11/21/2013, 5:44am  ET

In this Nov. 12, 2013 photo, Calmelo Novas, 84, one of many people of Haitian descent fearing the effects of a recent Dominican court ruling on citizenship, sits in the doorway of his home in Jimani, Dominican Republic, near the border with Haiti. A Dominican Constitutional Court ruling that being born in the country does not automatically grant citizenship is a reflection of deep hostility in the Dominican Republic to the vast number of Haitians who have come to live in their country, many brought over to work in the sugar industry. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

BEN FOX
Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Wilver Cuevas Betances was born in the Dominican Republic and never left until he ran into some soldiers at a bus station in Santo Domingo who demanded his passport.

"I don't have a passport. I'm Dominican," the 29-year-old recalls telling the soldiers. Ignoring his pleas, his perfect Spanish, and the Dominican identification card showing his birthplace, they deported him the following day across the border to Haiti.

Four days later, after a night on a park bench in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, he sat in wrinkled clothes in the office of a migrant assistance group, struggling to make himself understood in the unfamiliar language of Creole, the French-based language spoken in Haiti.

"I have nothing here," he said. "I don't know anyone."

Migrant advocates are bracing for more abrupt deportations to impoverished Haiti as a result of a recent Dominican court ruling that narrows the definition of citizenship. So far, there have not been mass deportations, but there are growing accounts of people being summarily kicked out of the country, in some cases apparently based solely on the color of their skin.

"Blacks are hardly going out because they're picking up a lot of dark-skinned people," Cuevas said in an interview Thursday at the office of the Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees, a nongovernmental organization.

In September, the Dominican Constitutional Court ruled that being born in the country does not automatically grant citizenship, and it directed officials to purge voter rolls of non-citizens, including people born to non-legal residents going back to 1929. Advocates say 200,000 people could be stripped of citizenship, along with the documents they need to work or attend school, although the government says an initial count came to about 24,000.

The ruling, based on a new 2010 constitution, is a reflection of deep hostility in the Dominican Republic to the vast number of Haitians who have come to live in their country, many brought in to work in the sugar industry and their descendants.

"Deportations have been fairly steady since 2007. Using the court ruling as a justification is new," said Tobias Metzner, a Haiti-based counter-trafficking program manager for the International Organization for Migration. "The legal context has changed."

Cesar Pina Toribio, a legal adviser to Dominican President Danilo Medina, made a lengthy defense of the government position to the Organization of American States last month, arguing that the country seeks only to gain control over its citizenship rolls and will develop a path to permanent legal residency.

But no details have been provided, and the law is already having consequences.

There are accounts of people who have been reported to immigration authorities and deported after squabbling with their neighbors or being abruptly thrown out of the country at a time when their employers are having financial difficulties, Metzner said. Migrants say they have paid bribes to soldiers to keep from being detained, or were held when they couldn't come up with enough cash, said Colette Lespinasse, director of the Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees, known by its French acronym as GARR.

And there are widespread reports that authorities are deporting or seizing the residency documents of people with darker skin or French names that may signal Haitian ancestry.

People like 23-year-old Dilsia Teresa Jean, who has lived her whole life in a town northwest of Santo Domingo, fear venturing into the capital. "I'm afraid they are going to arrest me," she said. "The bus drivers give us strange looks."

Soldiers appear to have misinterpreted the law when they detained Cuevas. A bricklayer by trade, he says his only connection to neighboring Haiti is that a dead grandfather was Haitian. Even under the September court ruling, people with at least one legal-resident parent would still be Dominican citizens, says Pina, the Dominican president's legal adviser. The case underscores what advocates say is a complicated, retroactive ruling that is having many unintended consequences.

Being sent to Haiti, meanwhile, is to be essentially cast adrift. The country has recovered substantially from the devastating January 2010 earthquake, but it has a barely functioning economy and jobs are scarce. The World Bank says nearly 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day.

In Jimani, an arid and somewhat seedy Dominican border town that swirls with chalky dust, there are hundreds of Haitians, many living in shacks of plywood and corrugated tin with small gardens fenced off by dried stalks of sugar cane. Soldiers seem to largely ignore the many non-legal residents in the border zone, giving it the feel of a no-man's land.

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