Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Dominican Republic — the vast majority Haitians — face deportation as a deadline to apply for legal status looms.
The problem of what to do with thousands of workers who entered illegally from a neighboring country is not an unfamiliar one in the hemisphere. The plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States and lawmakers’ failed attempts at reform come to mind.
The Dominican government tackled the issue with a “regularization plan” that offered a path to legal status for the undocumented. But critics say it was designed to fail the migrant workers.
Wednesday is the deadline for undocumented immigrants in the Dominican Republic to register under the regularization plan or face deportation.
“Those who do not have documentation will have to return to their country,” Dominican Foreign Minister Andres Navarro said.
According to the government, more than 200,000 undocumented immigrants living in the Dominican Republic have registered, but at least that many others will not meet the deadline.
Claims of racial prejudice
The fact that the majority of foreigners — documented or not — living in the Dominican Republic are Haitian has led to accusations that there are other racial prejudices involved, too.
The immigration overhaul comes at the same time that Dominicans of Haitian descent are in a fight over their status. A 2013 court ruling stripped the citizenship of Dominicans whose parents were undocumented immigrants. A separate law to address their status is equally controversial.
Human rights groups fear mass deportations.
The regularization law states its purpose is to “provide a window of opportunity” for undocumented workers to contribute without living in the shadows and to reap the benefits of legal protections offered by the government.
But to hear it in immigrants’ own words, those words don’t correspond with their experience.
“Today is my 15th day here, and I still have not been able to get my documents,” Haitian immigrant Ruben Renoir told CNN en Español as he waited in a line to apply for legal status.
Another immigrant shared a similar story: “I came here with my birth certificate to apply because I knew that there were going to be problems, but they still haven’t processed me,” Melizo Pierre said.
A problem with documentation
To human rights observers, this is not surprising.
Many of the undocumented workers in the Dominican Republic lack valid passports or other identification documents from their home countries.
Some 96% of those who have applied for regularization don’t have passports, Angelita Baeyens, programs director at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, told CNN.
Another requirement is for employers to provide the undocumented workers with a certificate, something that many are refusing to do, Baeyens said.
Haitian officials, meanwhile, are preparing for an influx of deportees as the deadline passes.
At least two repatriation centers have been opened on the border between the two countries to process the Haitians who are sent back from the Dominican Republic.
The deadline also worries some people who were born in the Dominican Republic. While there is separate legislation to deal with Dominicans who were stripped of their citizenship, those Dominicans born to Haitian immigrants but not registered in the civil registry fear being swept up in deportation raids.
By Mariano Castillo and Diulka Perez
CNN’s Mariano Castillo reported and wrote the story in Atlanta. CNN en Español’s Diulka Perez reported from the Dominican-Haitian border.