The plight of thousands of poor ethnic Haitians, threatened with potential expulsion from the Dominican Republic, has brought together an unusually diverse array of activists in the Washington region while evoking critical comparisons to U.S. deportation of illegal immigrants and recent episodes of violence against African Americans.
The crisis has also galvanized many middle-class Haitian American émigrés to take a stand on an issue that seems far removed from their successful lives. It is an issue that raises uncomfortable echoes of the bitter history between the neighboring countries — both former dictatorships and slave colonies — on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
Under a 2013 Dominican court ruling, nearly 300,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent — many of them field workers and low-wage laborers — are being required to apply for permanent residency and possible citizenship or be declared stateless. Only a small percentage have applied, and the deadline for doing so was last Wednesday .
“The passion of this cause has really brought us out of our comfort zones,” said Giles Charleston, 43, a consultant in Olney, Md., and a leader of the District-based Association of Haitian Professionals. “The bigger picture is not only about the [Dominican Republic] but about Haiti, too. This is a crisis of human rights and of birthright. We are telling the diaspora we need all hands on deck.”
Charleston was among about 200 demonstrators, many wearing the red and blue colors of the Haitian flag, who rallied late Monday afternoon in Dupont Circle, then marched to the nearby Dominican Embassy under police escort. They chanted slogans in Spanish and Haitian Creole and carried posters that said “Black Lives Matter” and “One Island, One People.”
In fiery and exuberant speeches, speakers with bullhorns denounced the Dominican policy as ethnic cleansing and racist suppression. Some evoked the 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of dark or “Haitian-looking” inhabitants ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Dominicans are more likely than Haitians to be mixed race with lighter skin. Haiti is one of the world’s poorest countries, while the Dominican Republic is somewhat more prosperous. Haiti was colonized by France, and most inhabitants speak a form of French Creole. The Dominican Republic was a colony of Spain, and the national language is Spanish.
“This is a polarizing issue that pits hardworking Dominicans against hardworking Dominican Haitians,” said Emmanuel Bellegarde, 38, a Haitian-born economist who lives in the District. He noted that Haitian labor has long been critical to the Dominican economy — especially sugar cane harvesting, construction and tourist hospitality — and he called the new policy a form of “unnatural apartheid.”
Yet tensions have persisted over the large presence of ethnic Haitians, whom some Dominicans still view as inferior and no different than Haitian migrant workers from across the border. Both groups have faced periodic bouts of harassment.
In the United States, however, there are signs of a growing common cause between Haitian and Dominican émigrés. On Monday, Denita Veras, a Dominican-born member of the Prince George’s County Council, denounced the new nationality policy as “state-sanctioned social cleansing.” In New York City and Miami, members of large Haitian and Dominican communities alike have expressed opposition to the new policy.
The rally drew an even broader array of Hispanics and pro-
immigrant groups, including members and officials of CASA of Maryland, an advocacy and service organization that represents many illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Several compared the Haitians’ situation to that of young illegal immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” who came to the United States as children. Nancy Navarro, a Hispanic member of the Montgomery County Council, and Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), a Maryland state senator born in El Salvador, attended the rally.
There were also representatives from Code Pink, a women’s peace and social justice movement, as well as a three-time candidate for the presidency of Haiti, industrialist Charles Henri Baker, who wore a sober black suit and gave numerous radio and TV interviews.
In the past several weeks, international media attention to the expulsion threat has intensified, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has appealed to the government in Santo Domingo not to deport any affected individuals.
In response, Dominican officials have sought to tamp down fears of mass expulsions, asserting that no one will be immediately forced to leave the country and that the government is proceeding with a systematic, gradual program of nationality registration and documentation. The officials said almost 290,000 people had tried to register but that only about 10,000 possessed the needed documents.
A group of Haitian Americans, including Charleston, met Monday morning with Dominican Ambassador José Tomás Pérez and said afterward that they were told there would be a two-year grace period for all affected individuals. Officials at the embassy did not return telephone messages Tuesday seeking comment.
But local activists evoked images of people being beaten, homes being raided and families forced to leave with no belongings, some after living in the Dominican Republic all their lives. They said many had no identity documents and were therefore vulnerable to being declared “stateless,” even if they were born there.