Haitian migrants face rising backlash next door

In the Dominican Republic, Haitians looking for work face poor treatment and an increasing threat of attack.

The bodies were found scattered along the side of the road: suffocated to death and thrown out of the truck in which they had been traveling. The 25 Haitians were headed across the Caribbean island to the Dominican Republic this month, and to what they probably hoped would be a new beginning.

"We can not bear this disrespect," explained Anelio Ciceron, a Haitian farm worker standing at the northern Ouanaminthe-Dajabón border crossing two days later. "But we have no recourse, because we are Haitians. And to be Haitian is to be powerless."

An estimated 700,000 to 1 million Haitians, most of them illegal, live in the Dominican Republic, home to 8.8 million people. Haitians come in by foot over the border bridges, holding tight to their visas, or wading below those bridges, without papers. They pour across the 243-mile frontier hiding in the backs of cramped trucks, and in the trucks of cars. They come for one reason.

"My heart is in Haiti. My wife is in Haiti. My children are in Haiti. But work - that is lacking in Haiti," says Jonnie Senatin, who has been working on a sugar plantation in the east of the country for 15 years.

Haiti, a country about half the size of the Dominican Republic, has more than 75 percent unemployment, according to the CIA World Factbook. The Dominican Republic (DR) is faring better, with 17 percent unemployment, and one of the highest growth rates (7 percent) in the region last year.

It's not quite the sort of disparity that exists between the US and Mexico, but the dynamics create a similar debate here over illegal immigration: Whom does it benefit and whom does it hurt? Can, and should, it be stopped? And what part does racism play in the story?

Both countries share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but language, culture, physical appearance, and a long history of mutual antagonism and conflict - from Haiti's 22-year rule over the DR in the early 1800s to the 1937 massacre of up to 30,000 Haitian migrants in a campaign ordered by then-Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo - keep them apart.

Haiti's deteriorating economy and political instability in recent years has further strained relations, as ever more Haitians flee to take on the low-paying jobs in construction sites; cattle ranches; and rice, coffee, and sugar fields across the border.

In August, four young Haitian men were gagged and set on fire in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo. Last month, Dominicans burned about 20 shacks occupied by Haitian migrants and beheaded two workers in reprisal for their alleged involvement in the killing of a businessman.

When Dominican President Leonel Fernandez traveled to Haiti two weeks later, he was met by hundreds of demonstrators throwing rocks and chanting, "Fernandez, racist, stop murdering Haitians."

The Dominican human rights organization National Committee for Migrations voiced concern last month over increasing "outbreaks of xenophobia" targeting Haitians. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an opinion that the Dominican Republic is illegally denying birth certificates to babies born here to Haitian parents. And Human Rights Watch has called on the government to afford equal schooling opportunities to Haitian migrant children.

Armed Forces Minister Sigfrido Pared calls the continual immigration of Haitians "an attack" on Dominican sovereignty and beseeched the international community to help.

"This is a problem that can only be alleviated by helping Haiti," agrees Bernardo Vega, former Dominican ambassador to the US. "As long as Washington contains the flow of Haitian boat people to [US] shores, they don't see a problem - but it increases pressure on us, as the Haitians have nowhere to escape to but here," he says.

But while the government calls for an end to illegal immigration, the upper class continues to benefit from their cheap labor, charges Guillermo Starcinon, a Dominican Merengue singer. "They pay them slave wages and call immigration police on them before payday. Of course they want this," he says.

It's the Dominican poor who suffer, says Mr. Starcinon. "We know what it's like to be immigrants. We ourselves are immigrating to America all the time, so we feel sorry for the Haitians." But, he stresses, "they are working for nothing, are sometimes violent, and they are bringing us down."

Mr. Senatin lives in a sugar-company settlement in St. Jose de Los Llanos. He has no running water, shares a bunk bed in a shack, and makes about 85 pesos ($2.50), on a good day, which he keeps under lock in a secret place. At the end of the year, he manages to send his family 7,500 pesos (about $227). It's almost double what he would make at home, if he could find work.

In all the time he has lived in the Dominican Republic, Senatin says, he has not made one Dominican friend.

"We're not liked here. I know that," he says without sentiment.

Adriana Yuan, a Haitian woman who sells hair extensions and perfume on a sidewalk in Santo Domingo, does not want to talk about bad treatment and tough conditions here.

"I work all the time, from morning until night, and I keep my head down," she says. "If someone says they don't want my hair extensions because I am a dirty Haitian, that is OK. I am just working here."

Michele Oriol, a sociologist in Haiti, argues that complaining about the treatment of the Haitians is a folly.

"All these human rights groups should not be so selfish when it comes to criticizing the [Dominican Republic]," she says. "They need to do their homework: We don't have any economic possibilities in Haiti."

Complete villages in Haiti are being sustained by money sent home from the Dominican Republic, she argues. "Sure, it's not paradise," she says, "but look at the big picture - if they were turned away instead, people here would starve."

Father Christopher Hartley, a Roman Catholic priest who ministers to the workers in St. Jose de Los Llanos, disagrees. "Poverty should not serve as anyone's excuse for abuse of power," he says. "Desperation of these people is no excuse for the way they are being treated."

Back at the Dajabón border crossing, Dominican authorities recently tried to drive the bodies of the 25 would-be immigrants back to Haiti for burial. They were met with violent protests in which two more Haitians were shot.

"We will keep on being disrespected, and we will keep on dying," says Ciceron, the farm worker. "But we will keep on coming across, too. We don't see a better option."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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