Earlier this month, Ykienne Destin stood in a long line outside the Dominican Republic's Interior Ministry facing a stark choice: Return to Haiti voluntarily or risk deportation.
“There’s nothing back there for me. There’s no way for me to support my family. But I don’t want to be deported and not have the chance to come back,” says Mr. Destin, a motorcycle taxi driver who emigrated seven years ago and waited five days, ultimately unsuccessfully, to start the residency process here.
Although he holds a valid Dominican visa, Destin says he's unsure if it's enough to keep him and his children from being deported. “Will I stay? I don’t know.”
Hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants and many of their Dominican-born children are facing the same dilemma. The country has been sorting out who gets to stay, and who will be forced out, and has threatened to begin deportations next month. But confusion still reigns within the Haitian community.
Dominican officials dismiss criticism they're motivated by anti-Haitian sentiment, saying tougher rules are necessary after years of uncontrolled migration that's strained the budget. The Dominican plan to start deporting unregistered migrants has enraged international human rights groups, leading to calls for a tourism boycott, and added to tensions with Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola.
To be sure, mass deportations remain a threat and not a reality. The Dominican government has thus far relied on voluntary departures and is offering free transportation, including of personal items, to the border until July 6. Dominican authorities said Monday that 25,517 Haitians have self-deported since June 18.
“The situation at the border right now is the calmest I’ve seen in the more than three and a half years that we’ve been monitoring deportations,” says Pedro Cano Olivares, coordinator for the Jesuit Refugee Service’s office in Jimani, one of the main Haitian-Dominican border crossings. “But we see it as a kind of calm that gives us a false sense of security for what’s going to happen in the next months.”
Mr. Cano says he expects deportations to begin in earnest after July 6. More than 200,000 people will be at risk of deportation at that point, he says.
Additionally, the government has until early August to sort through about 280,000 applications made under the residency plan. Those who do not qualify will also be eligible for deportation.
“Our concern is not necessarily with the speed of deportations, rather the lack of transparency and safeguards whenever they are carried out,” says Wade McMullen, staff attorney at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights in Washington. “Whether people are at risk today or two months from now, their everyday life has fundamentally changed.”
While the vast majority of those vulnerable to deportation are Haitian-born immigrants, also caught up in the process are Dominican-born children who lack documentation.
Under a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling, people born in the country to undocumented parents as far back as 1929 are not eligible for birthright citizenship.
President Danilo Medina this month restored citizenship to some 55,000 of those who were affected. But as the citizenship debate became more heated over the past year and a half, those without documentation were forced to register as foreigners. Some refused, others were left scrambling to obtain documents from Haiti in order to register here as a foreigner and avoid being deported to a country they have never lived in, or in many cases, even visited.
While Dominican officials have touted the immigration overhaul as a success – they received nearly 80,000 more applications than expected – international backlash has threatened its tourism industry. Tourism to the Dominican Republic is one of its largest economic drivers and the source of much of its foreign investment.
US politicians, including presidential candidate Martin O’Malley of Maryland and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have seized on the situation to criticize the Dominican government. Mr. de Blasio hinted at the need for a tourism boycott.
“These mass deportations – if enacted – would also be an abhorrent affront to human rights by one of our closest neighbors,” Mr. O’Malley wrote in a Huffington Post blog.
Amid the criticism, President Medina said his country would not be swayed by such pressure.
At a gathering last week in Guatemala of foreign heads of state, Medina said: “You can be sure that our sovereignty will not be put in question, not for one tourist more or one cent more in investment.”