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Matt Chandler for America Tonight

As Dominican deadline passes, immigrants worry about deportations

Hundreds of thousands of people with Haitian roots worry they may soon be forced to leave the Dominican Republic

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Wednesday was the fifth day Rene Inoce says he went to the government building in the Dominican capital and he still wasn’t seen.

Each day he stood in line and waited. He never even made it to the entrance.

For days, Inoce and other immigrant workers from Haiti have been lining up, desperate to get the paperwork that would allow them to stay in their adopted country. On top of that, as many as 200,000 people born to undocumented immigrant parents have recently been stripped of their Dominican citizenship. But many of them say the complicated and bureaucratic process to get those papers is just one more way they face discrimination here.

The line of workers on the final day of enrollment stretched from the entrance that was guarded by police all the way around the block. Another line awaited those who made it inside, running up to the offices of immigration officials. Flicking through the documentation he carried, Inoce said the program put in place by the government to regulate the status of undocumented immigrant workers has been deliberately complex. 

“They don’t want Haitians here,” he said. “They began this process so we could stay legally but it’s all for nothing. They just want to get us out of the country.”

Those who failed to register as foreign workers before the government’s midnight deadline face deportation. Some, like the elderly sugar cane workers who said they lined up day after day without success, have spent decades working in the Dominican Republic. In Inoce's case he says whatever happens, even if he is taken back to Haiti, he will return. He needs his job in construction, a Dominican industry that has been rapidly growing but relies heavily on Haitian labor.

My life here is 50,000 times better than anything I can imagine in Haiti. I’m a native of this place. I was born here. My child was born here. This is the only country I know.

Wilne Noel Yamatis

22-year-old man who could soon become stateless

At right, Wilne Noel Yamatis, 22, sits with his father Oscar, 86, who arrived from Haiti 50 years ago. Both face the possibility of deportation from the Dominican Republic.
Matt Chandler for America Tonight

While the government estimates more than 200,000 workers have enrolled in its worker registration program, around 300,000 have not and that number could be much higher. Many have struggled to obtain requirements such as documents from their Dominican employers or passports from the Haitian government.

But Amnesty International’s Robin Guittard points at a deeper problem. “People have reported a lot of arbitrariness in the processes," he said. "Many times they were asked for documents that were not required under the law. Communication campaigns have in some instances failed to reach communities at risk, which are the most isolated in the country. For many of those people living in extreme poverty, although in theory the plan is free, there are a number of substantial costs such as transport and the authentication of documents.”

Dominican Interior Minister José Ramón Fadul defended the moves, telling America Tonight, “We are just securing our borders like any other country.”

He says it was time to find out how many immigrants – legal and illegal – are in the country and that the flow of people from Haiti into the Dominican Republic is too much for a country with its own challenges. The government says political and economic instability in Haiti, exacerbated by the earthquake in 2010, is driving more and more Haitians over the border.

Many people born in the Dominican Republic to undocumented immigrant parents are also now at risk. While public opinion largely supports the government plan to deport undocumented workers, some oppose the stripping of this population of their Dominican citizenship simply because of their parents’ nationality. A constitutional court ruling in 2013 set the separate so-called "naturalization" plan in motion for this population. Many were born at home in "bateyes" – poor, rural slums in regions like El Ceibo built to accommodate sugar cane workers. Small families of four or five live in tiny houses that are often no more than one room.

In Santa Rita, Wilne Noel Yamatis, 22, says when he went to renew his birth certificate, it was taken from him.

His 86-year-old father Oscar arrived from Haiti 50 years ago, worked in the sugar cane fields and managed to buy a small plot of land. Now the whole family faces uncertainty knowing they could lose the little they have. “I have nothing and no one in Haiti,” Yamatis told America Tonight.

He has never visited Haiti and doesn’t speak the language. After he proudly shows off his tiny makeshift home, he becomes emotional at the prospect of being deported. “My life here is 50,000 times better than anything I can imagine in Haiti,” he says. “I’m a native of this place. I was born here. My child was born here. This is the only country I know.” All he wants he says is to return to his studies and to work. Without papers, neither is an option for him.

The total number of people who could become effectively "stateless" isn’t known. Estimates range up to 200,000 and beyond. The government says just 8,000 have enrolled in the naturalization process. According to Guittard, Dominican officials aren't committed to discovering the real figure.

“The government doesn't admit first that the state bears responsibility for the current situation when it stripped thousands of Dominican-born people of their Dominican nationality," he said. "It seems the Dominican government is voluntarily ignoring their existence. It would be criminal to remove them from this country.”

The interior minister says there have been multiple extensions available to people applying to stay and that ultimately the government cannot simply take the word of any individual without proper evidence. “If someone arrives and says they’re Dominican how do I know they’re Dominican?" Fadul said. "How do I know their identity when I don’t even know their name. Should I register them just for telling me this? How?”

In line to try to get papers, Jacobo, who didn’t want to give his surname, said that he was born in the Dominican Republic. Unable to gather the required documents, he has elected to try to stay as a foreigner in his own country. After a visit to the Haitian Embassy in Santo Domingo, he obtained a document stating he was born in Haiti. He says it’s worth it if he and his family can stay.

In the hours before the deadline passed, truckloads of police were deployed onto the streets. One officer told America Tonight about the crowds still gathered hoping to be processed. “We’ll use force if necessary to send them home,” he said.

But most migrants and undocumented people, defeated by hours of waiting in line, finally walked away. Many were nervous about when the government’s threatened deportations will begin and if they and their families will be spared.​

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