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Difference Maker

Helping migrant workers prove who they are – and avoid exploitation

When Haitians cross into the Dominican Republic to work, they often lack official documents that can help protect them from abuse. That's where Johnny Rivas steps in.

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A few years ago, Rivas's organization, the Jesuit-run Solidaridad Fronteriza, came up with a plan. It decided to create its own identification badges, a way for the undocumented to document themselves.

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Rivas and others began going town to town, interviewing workers to determine how long they've been in the Dominican Republic, where they work, how many children they have, their identification number in Haiti, and any other bits of information they could put on legitimate-looking badges.

"We must legalize the workers," says Father Rehino Martinex Breton, the director of Solidaridad Fronteriza, who has worked in the region for nearly four decades. "We propose that immigration officials allow people to circulate with the badge we give them. It has no legal authority, but a moral one."

Since the program started, Solidaridad has distributed more than 6,000 badges. Many have been arranged by Rivas.

Rivas is Haitian by birth, but has lived in the Dominican Republic for most of his life. He was a schoolteacher in Haiti, but here he worked, like most Haitians, in the fields. His employers fired him after they realized he was organizing other Haitians.

In 2003, impressed by what he saw the Jesuits doing to defend immigrant workers, he volunteered. Soon, he had a full-time job with Solidaridad. He was elected by the other workers as a group leader.

"He is a very well-known person," says Kelly Jean, a Haitian agricultural worker who paid a trafficker to help him sneak into the Dominican Republic in 2004. "He is a very helpful person, so he's very popular among the people."

Others seem to share Mr. Jean's view. When Rivas arrives at a grim collection of aluminum shacks, men and women gather around. Most show him that they have their badges hanging around their necks.

Area officials have started to recognize these IDs, they say, although they still have trouble when they travel farther away.

"Tell how you were shot here," one worker calls out to Rivas.

Rivas nods and explains that once, when he was having a meeting here, word came that a Dominican soldier was beating a Haitian man. Rivas rushed out into the street to break up the fight. The soldier fired his shotgun, hitting Rivas.

He shrugs off the incident. "I am not scared," Rivas says. "We have more important things to worry about. And with these badges, we are making a start."

Travel for this story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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