MEXICO CITY — The Dominican Republic was preparing on Wednesday to enforce a new registration deadline that has raised fears of mass deportations of undocumented workers and others of Haitian descent.
The head of the country's immigration agency, Army Gen. Ruben Paulino, told reporters that his agency along with Dominican soldiers would begin patrolling migrant neighborhoods looking for those who have not registered with the government. If they do not have papers, he said, “they will be repatriated.”
The prospect of large-scale deportations is the result of a controversial 2013 ruling by the country's highest court that called into question the citizenship status of people of Haitian descent, even those who were born in the Dominican Republic. Described by critics as racist and nationalistic, the ruling retroactively stripped people of citizenship and sparked an international outcry as it effectively created a pool of thousands of stateless people.
In response to the backlash, the Dominican government came up with a registration system for people to prove citizenship or that they had lived in the country before 2011. Since last June, more than 250,000 people have applied to stay, but only a fraction have so far documented their citizenship.
“There are still tens of thousands of people who are now stateless and do not have any documents,” said Wade McMullen, managing attorney at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, which has advocated on behalf of Dominicans affected by the court ruling. “These people will get swept up in raids of migrant communities. Families are going to be broken apart. These stateless people will be shipped to Haiti, a country they've never known, and don't speak the language.”
In addition to the people born in the Dominican Republic who may have trouble proving citizenship, there are hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrant workers who are also at risk of deportation. The Dominican government has demanded that they register with authorities by Wednesday night or they could be shipped over the border.
Relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, have been fraught for generations. There have been times of great violence, such as when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians in 1937. Among segments of Dominican society, racism is still commonly directed at Haitian neighbors, many of whom have come to work in low-paying jobs on farms or as servants.
The tension has mounted this week as Wednesday night's deadline approached. Protesters who tried to force their way into a government building in the capital, Santo Domingo, were dispersed by police and tear gas. Long lines formed outside immigration offices, with some people sleeping on the sidewalks and others sitting in the dirt, local newspapers reported. Hundreds of people of Haitian descent gathered outside the Interior Ministry waiting for biometric testing. In rural areas outside the capital, some people had to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest immigration office.
It was unclear how swiftly or aggressively the government planned to enforce its immigration policies. There have been reports of deployments of troops trained to find migrants and new government buses to transport deportees. Local newspapers reported that military bases along the border will be lending space for immigration officials to do their work.
“This is a very difficult situation for our community; it's very tense right now and it worries us a lot,” Lidiana Dolis, coordinator for a nonprofit group, the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women, said by phone from Santo Domingo. “We don't know for sure what's going to happen to these people.”
The Dominican government has issued conflicting statements about how it intends to proceed, which observers said reflects internal tensions between those who do not want to create an international scandal and more hard-line, nationalist factions bent on making a strong show of force with raids and military sweeps.
Organizations working with migrants and those of Haitian descent said deportations actually started earlier this year, sweeping up people who had registered for the government's program.
“The military has detained and thrown out of the country many people when they went to the office to register for the plan,” said Pedro Cano Olivares, coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Service in Independencia, a border province. “They've entered homes, picked people up off the street, and they deport them, without asking for any documentation, without caring whether they've signed up for the plan or not.”
“We're very worried about these arbitrary deportations,” he said.
There have been mass deportations in the past, including in 1991, when tens of thousands of people, including many sugar cane workers, were sent back to Haiti.
“We are concerned about a possible humanitarian crisis,” said Bridget Wooding, director of the Observatory of Caribbean Migrants, a think tank in Santo Domingo. “But what concerns us much more is the lack of due process, the risk of deporting people born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian descent.”
The immigration policies have faced widespread criticism outside the country, but there is also domestic opposition. Agricultural business owners have warned that deportations could harm the country's food production, as many migrant laborers work on farms. Osmar Benitez, the head of a Dominican agribusiness association, told local reporters that about 200,000 farm workers might have to leave the country. Among the most affected industries, he predicted, would be livestock and banana production.
“The actions that the government will take starting tomorrow are not clear,” Wooding said. “The news in the press is very alarming, but we don't know if the army will do patrols in the streets, if they will detain everyone, if they will do operations in specific zones, if they will look for people without documents. No one knows. But what we do know is that they can detain someone only based on their appearance and the color of their skin.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.