Backlash Against Haitians

By David Abel  |  The San Francisco Chronicle | 12/7/1999

LA VEGA, Dominican Republic - An orphan without any education and with little to eat, 12-year-old Lucksene Mezililen followed some friends across the Haitian border some months ago and now scrapes by in this central Dominican city illegally selling candy.

Josephine Losette, 26, recently gave birth to a dimple-faced boy at a maternity hospital in Santo Domingo. Without papers, she worries whether her son will be allowed to go to school in her adopted country. Taking a break from moving earth and pulverizing cement, Aldonis Celesten, 40, supports eight children home in Haiti on the $8 he earns each day under the table helping to build a highway overpass in Santo Domingo.

At least half a million Haitians live illegally in the Dominican Republic. And like Mezililen, Losette, and Celesten, few of them speak Spanish, most live in dire poverty, few have Dominican friends, and many are harassed and arbitrarily deported by Dominican police, who regard them as an unwanted underclass.

"They treat us like we are strangers, like we are animals, that we shouldn't be trusted," Mezililen said after putting down a bin of the sugary Mani candy he had balanced on his head. "It's not easy to live here. But there is nothing in Haiti."

The poor treatment of Haitians living across
the frontier in the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola - the lush Caribbean island that some 8 million Creole-speaking Haitians share with about 8 million Spanish-speaking Dominicans - has long been a subject of controversy.

But the issue began dominating the airwaves and newspapers in both countries after a report in October by the Organization of American States accused the Dominican government of carrying out mass deportations, and recommended that it grant Haitians legal rights.

The report rebuked Dominican officials for not adopting measures such as issuing undocumented Haitian workers residency cards or legalizing the status of their children born in the Dominican Republic. Despite a provision in the Dominican constitution granting citizenship to anyone born on Dominican territory, as many as 280,000 undocumented Haitian children live without even identity cards, according to Haiti's embassy in Santo Domingo.

"This is a huge injustice. Some of these children only speak Spanish, but they have no documents and they can't even go to school," said Joseph Daseme, who oversees immigration matters at the Haitian Embassy. "This is a problem of discrimination; if we were white this wouldn't be happening."

Officials from the three major parties, however, unite in their dismissal of the OAS report.

Different governments here have long
relied on another provision in the Dominican constitution that denies citizenship to those children born of parents "in transit" through the Dominican Republic. The undoc umented Haitians - even those who have lived here for decades - have long been considered in transit.

As for the deportations, which often occur so quickly the Haitians have little or no warning to collect their possessions, immigration officials say they're part of the routine repatriation of 30,000 undocumented Haitians each year.

"They are here illegally and it is our right to deport them," said Ivan Pena, director of Haitian migration at the Dominican Immigration Department. "We are not violating their human rights. The constitution says they are in transit. They aren't Dominicans."

Prejudice, mistrust, and tension between Haitians and Dominicans go back to 1822, not long after Haiti became the world's first black republic. In a bid to topple slavery in the Spanish colony to the east, Haiti invaded the Dominican Republic, ruling harshly until Dominicans gained independence in 1844.

Ever since, many Dominican officials have fanned the flames of racism by warning that Haiti has designs to take over the whole island. The worst conflict between the two countries, however, came in 1937 when the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered about 30,000 migrant Haitians slaughtered along the Massacre River near the border.

Dominican officials have often attributed problems such as high unemployment and depressed wages to the glut of undocumented Haitians, many of whom have been welcomed across the border to work in low-paying jobs harvesting sugar cane or building roads.

Those complaints have increased in recent years, as the Dominican Republic boasts one of the highest growth rates in the Western Hemisphere, about 7 percent, while Haiti remains the region's poorest country.

Despite the tensions, the past few years have seen unprecedented improvements in relations. For the first time in six decades, the Dominican and Haitian presidents last year reciprocated visits. That followed steps the two governments took in 1996 to strengthen diplomatic, legal, and commercial ties, paving the way last year for the countries to begin direct mail service and to stop routing their letters through Miami.