Haitians Protest Treatment in Dominican Republic

Haitians living and working as illegal immigrants in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola, have grouped together recently to protest their treatment. The Dominican Republic denies citizenship to Haitians who migrate there to work, and also denies citizenship to Haitian children born in the country.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Next month, Haitian activist Sonia Pierre will receive the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. She's being recognized for her work protecting the rights of Haitian immigrants who live in the Dominican Republic. In particular, Pierre formed a group to help empower Haitian women and children.

Reporter Michelle Garcia recently visited the Dominican Republic. She brought back this report on how Haitians are treated like second class citizens in the Dominican Republic.

MICHELLE GARCIA: When sugar still fueled the Dominican Republic's economy, when the government still owned massive plantations in the countryside, it imported Haitian cane cutters, migrant workers from the other side of the border.

(Soundbite of children)

GARCIA: They made their homes in bateyes, labor camps of shacks and barracks tucked into the fields. It's in the bateyes where Dimari Noel grew up and still lives, the daughter of a cane cutter.

Inside a one-room church, pieced together with wood and painted blue, Dimari cradles her infant daughter, Josefa, and waits out a storm, chatting with other young mothers and worrying.

Ms. DIMARI NOEL (Mother): (Through Translator) I still haven't been able to get her a birth certificate because I don't have documents.

GARCIA: Government officials have repeatedly denied her an identification card, saying she has to submit to the immigration process. Dimari was born in the Dominican Republic, a country that confers citizenship at birth, but not to her and thousands of others because she was the child of migrant workers and the children of migrant workers received a special type of birth certificate. It recorded a birth but it didn't make them citizens.

Even that meager status was lost when the government abandoned its sugar industry some 10 years ago. Migrant workers began streaming into the cities searching for work. A backlash prompted the government to adopt laws and regulations to deny the Dominican-born children of Haitian workers Dominican citizenship.

Ms. NOEL: (Through translator) Even in the hospital when you give birth, they don't give you the paper that you could use to declare your child, because the first thing they ask is, Where is your cedula - your identification card? And if you say you don't have it, they don't give you the birth certificate.

GARCIA: For now, this robust, sturdy and outspoken woman is stuck in the bateye, an illegal immigrant in the country of her birth without proof of citizenship, Dimari and little Josefa are vulnerable to deportation. In the last decade, human rights groups have documented the expulsions of tens of thousands of Haitians and ethnic Haitians plucked from the roadsides, from their homes, and dumped in Haiti.

Ms. NOEL: (Through translator) There are so many times you go to the capital and you go in fear, because you don't have a document that says you're from such and such a place and you're Dominican. And when immigration grabs you and sends you to Haiti, you don't have anyone there. And what's going to happen?

GARCIA: They are the by-products of a two-tiered system wrought by a guest worker program, says Roxanna Altholz, a clinical professor at the University of California at Berkeley and human rights attorney representating ethnic Haitians.

Professor ROXANNA ALTHOLZ (University of California,Berkeley): What the Dominican Republic has done is created a permanent underclass, a category of individuals that in the eyes of the law don't exist, that have no right to own property, have no right to education, to health, have no right right to vote. And they are individuals caught in a legal limbo and condemned to poverty.

GARCIA: Franklin Almeyda, secretary of the interior and police, says the workers were invited to fill jobs, but that doesn't mean they or their children are meant to become members of society, to become Dominicans.

Mr. FRANKLIN ALMEYDA (Secretary of Interior Security and Police): (Through translator) If undocumented parents have a child, that child is a U.S. citizen. The parents can be deported, which is the big conflict for families in the United States. In our case, on the other hand, if the parents are undocumented, the child that is born - unless they apply for citizenship - is also undocumented. It's lamentable, but it's that way.

GARCIA: Attitudes towards ethnic Haitians strongly infused with threads of racism and anti-Haitian sentiment. A Dominican official told Human Rights Watch that illegal immigrants are made obvious by their blacker, rougher skin. Hostilities are deeply imbedded on the island of Hispaniola. Reminders of the 19th century Haitian conquest of the Dominican Republic are common. And Dominican politicos rely on anti-Haitian sentiment and nationalism to up their popularity.

Take for example, Marino Vinicio Castillo, president of the Forceor National Progressicita, the nationalist party. He calls their customs and cultures incompatible.

Mr. MARINO VINICIO CASTILLO (Forceor National Progressista): (Through translator) The ways the countries were developed were different. We have distinctive languages. And in our religion, ours is stable and defined. We are mostly Christian. We don't have the customs of that population that mixes religious beliefs with voodoo.

GARCIA: But last year, ethnic Haitians came a little closer to entering the Dominican mainstream. The InterAmerican Court on Human Rights ruled in favor of two girls - ethnic Haitians - who were denied birth certificats an education beyond grade school. The court ordered the government to issue the girls birth certificates, granting them full rights as citizens along with an apology, and to revamp their policy for issuing birth certificates and national I.D. cards, so as to bring an end to discrimination to Haitian Dominicans.

But the ruling is largely symbolic and unenforceable. Still, Secretary Almeyda says Dominican officials are working on proposals to comply with the government's ruling, without compromising their right to decide who becomes a citizen.

Mr. ALMEYDA: (Through translator) It doesn't matter who was born here. If they are born to a Dominican or someone who is undocumented, we have to register the birth, but not the nationality, which is another thing. To give them the nationality, that is a matter of state soverignty. But a registration is a human right. But that is under consideration right now.

GARCIA: Another solution may include a type of amnesty, Almeyda says. The Dominican Republic may offer people who have lived in the country for 10 years a legal status.

Back at the blue clapboard church, a heavy rain falls on the tin roof, startling the babies. Dimari and the other mothers are resigned to waiting. Her father, Wilson Noel, came from Haiti to work in the fields 35 years ago and later established the church. A slight man with a round face, he says the church is the only place where their voices are heard.

Mr. WILSON NOEL (Haitian Migrant Worker): (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA: If you don't have your documents, you can't go far, he says. That's why we pray to God here, asking him to send someone to help us, because we don't have power, because we can't leave.

Mr. NOEL: (Speaking foreign language)

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Garcia.

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