SANTO DOMINGO — The day after a deadline to register with immigration authorities passed, hundreds of thousands of Haitians or their descendants here entered a new limbo Thursday in which they could be subject to deportation if caught by Dominican authorities.
But Dominican officials said they would not begin rapid or mass expulsions of undocumented migrants, as some had feared. Instead, they said, they will begin to evaluate individual cases while respecting human rights.
“Until this moment, there has not been any action of migratory interdiction,” the immigration office said Thursday in a statement cited in the local press.
By midnight Wednesday, more than 275,000 people had registered in two dozen offices across the country to establish residency status. They were driven to do so to conform to a new government program intended to crack down on illegal immigration. But critics say the program amounts to an anti-Haitian campaign.
Those who registered were entered into the government’s biometric database and now begin a full registration process that could take weeks or months; for the time being, they are exempt from deportation.
But there are roughly 250,000 others who did not come forward with documents and may be at risk of deportation. While authorities told people to carry their documents in case they were stopped by immigration officials, they stressed that they would not be making mass arrests.
Despite fears of military raids or roundups in Haitian neighborhoods, there did not appear to be such actions Thursday. Nor were there reports of protests or street violence.
The program would not amount to a “witch hunt,” Interior Minister José Ramón Fadul said, according to the Associated Press. “It will be a gradual process, as it should be, without any sudden surprises.”
U.S. and other international officials, who have opposed any mass deportation effort, were watching closely to see how the Dominican government enforces its new immigration rules.
The program was born out of a 2013 Supreme Court ruling here that called into question the citizenship of people of Haitian descent, even those born in the Dominican Republic. After an uproar over the ruling, President Danilo Medina’s government came up with a registration program as a compromise; it allows people to attain residency if they prove they have lived in the country since before 2011.
In previous decades, the Dominican Republic has resorted on several occasions to mass deportations of Haitians, who often work here in low-paying jobs such as farming and construction.
During a speech to the nation Wednesday night, during which he said he may seek reelection, Medina made little mention of the immigration deadline, despite widespread local and international news coverage. Some considered this an attempt to distance himself from the issue.
Haitian President Michel Martelly said his country “is ready to receive with dignity our sons, our brothers.”