store in Batey Matamamon
Midnight raids, bus rides to the border, and families ripped
apart: what it means to be of Haitian descent in the Dominican
DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC Imagine it's 2:30
in the morning. You and your family are at home, in bed.
You're sleeping soundly after a back-breaking day of work,
perhaps in the sugar cane fields, maybe in construction.
It was only the most recent day of a lifetime of blood and
sweat poured into continuous labor. Let's suppose your father
came here, to the Dominican Republic, from Haiti in the
1940s, recruited officially by the state-owned Dominican
sugar industry. Here he met your mother, a Dominican woman.
You were born with the help of a midwife, in the house next
door to the one you now occupy with your family.
worry, your imagination has not run wild: your story as
it stands is like that of thousands of people living in
the Dominican Republic.
there is tremendous commotion in your neighborhood. Soldiers
of the Dominican army appear in doorways, asking for papers.
The Dominican government is exercising its sovereign right
to control foreign immigration into the country. You tell
your spouse and children to hide.
course, the soldier approaching your door has no way
to prove that you are not Dominican. But there will
be no hearing.
the window you can see a bus half-loaded with human beings.
The soldiers move from house to house. Some people have
papers and are left alone. Some people have no papers, and
they are instantly put onto the bus. Some people have papers,
but the soldiers simply tear them up and load the people
on the bus. There is loud shouting from the soldiers and
alarm among the residents. In their hiding place, your family
members huddle in fright.
soldiers come to your house. There should be nothing to
worry about. You're Dominican. You were born here. This
is your army, trained to protect the country you were born
in and the land that you and your parents have worked for
years. But, like thousands of others, you have no way to
prove it. Neither your mother nor father had identification
papers. You weren't born in a hospital. No one ever issued
you a birth certificate or government identification.
course, the soldier approaching your door has no way to
prove that you are not Dominican. But there will
be no hearing. You will not have a chance to explain. So
how will the soldier determine if you are Dominican or Haitian?
He asks your name. He listens to your accent. He looks at
the color of your skin. And if your skin is dark enough
in tone, if you have difficulty pronouncing your Rs,
if your last name sounds strange, he will push you on the
bus. No time to collect belongings. No time to say good-bye
to your family. Straight onto the bus.
on the bus, you proceed to the Dominican border with Haiti.
If you're lucky, you might be fed during the trip. If you're
even luckier, the bus will go directly to the border and
you won't spend days in the army's holding stations. This
"luck" is relative. At the end of the line, it's
all the same: the bus unloads at one of the bridges crossing
the Masacre River and the soldiers force you across into
Haiti, closing the gate behind. You are left in a foreign
country, not knowing the language and penniless, perhaps
without even a change of clothes.
on the expulsions
tragic story, in various permutations, is repeated daily
in the Dominican Republic. Don't take my word for it, listen
to General Juan Luis Peralta Beco, commander of the Dominican
Army's Third Brigade, reporting proudly to the newspaper
El Nacional about his troops' operations: "The job
isn't easy. Every night several members of the army that
work in this area stay up all night patrolling and carrying
out raids in which dozens of Haitians are arrested, including
women with just-born children in their arms." (Read the
article, in Spanish.)
1991, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued
a report criticizing the Dominican government's collective
and arbitrary system of expulsions. Unfortunately, the report
had little effect. In 1998, therefore, representatives of
the Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic, the
National Coalition for Haitian Rights and the Center for
Justice and International Law (CEJIL) began exploring the
possibility of taking a case before the Inter-American Commission.
Soon after, primary responsibility for the case was turned
over to the Human Rights Center at Columbia Law School,
since Columbia was looking for a project at the time and
the Berkeley Clinic had its hands full with the Education
Case. However, the Columbia and Berkeley students have
worked together closely on both cases ever since.
Inter-American Commission ruled that the Dominican immigration-control
policy systematically violated the human rights of the Haitians
and Dominicans of Haitian descent subjected to it. This
still had little effect on the policy. As a result, the
various petitioners and the Commission opted to pursue the
case in the form of a request for Preliminary Measures from
the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. (Preliminary Measures
are a sort of injunctive relief offered by the court for
cases in which irreparable harm would otherwise befall the
action's result was mixed. The court did not find that the
Dominican Republic practices massive and collective expulsions.
The court furthermore refused to recognize all people subject
to the Dominican expulsion system Haitians and Dominicans
of Haitian descent alike as a legal class. However,
when presented with the specific cases of seven individuals
and their families who had been subjected to sudden and
arbitrary expulsions, the court ordered specific remedies.
For families that were separated by the expulsions, the
court ordered the Dominican government to assist in their
reunification. For all the clients, it ordered the distribution
of "safe passage" documents, which will permit their holders
to re-enter the Dominican Republic, work and travel freely
within its borders. It also admonished the Dominican government
to keep its immigration-control procedures in line with
international human rights standards.
after the court's decision, the Dominican government was
slow to respond. Frustrated, the court ordered the formation
of an Implementation Committee to oversee compliance with
the Court's requirements, which met in Santo Domingo this
April. Safe-passage documents were given to many of the
clients. The Implementation Committee of which the
Berkeley Human Rights Clinic is part drew tremendous
criticism in the Dominican press. Seizing the issue for
election purposes, nationalist politicians complained that
in submitting to the committee's demands, the Dominican
government was abdicating its sovereignty. Others launched
a constitutional challenge against the committee before
the Dominican Supreme Court.
the case stands, the Implementation Committee is preparing
for a second meeting this fall. In the meantime, since no
Columbia student has come to the Dominican Republic this
summer to work on the case, I get to do some of the work.
In particular, I will try to arrange for the reunification
of one client with his family and for the distribution of
safe-passage documents to several of the clients, some in
Haiti and some in the Dominican Republic, who have not received
them. I will also analyze the status of the Dominican Supreme
Court case and possible reforms to Dominican immigration
Ask the Author:
Griffiths has agreed to answer your questions, time
Tim in Santo Domingo.
real challenge with this case is one of public relations.
The legal human rights arguments are strong. Ultimately,
however, the solution will require a lot of political will.
Unless we can convince people here in the Dominican Republic
that protecting the rights of Haitians and Dominicans of
Haitian descent is not only in accord with some abstract
human-rights convention, but also a good and morally right
thing to do, Dominicans are likely to view our actions as
outside meddling in Dominican affairs. The Human Rights
Watch's recent report "Illegal People" was a step in the
right direction. Not only did the report spotlight Human
Rights Watch's authority on the subject, it also did an
excellent job of personalizing the issues. Like people everywhere,
Dominicans are not likely to respond to the announcement
that they are in violation of Article 212, subsection P,
paragraph 4 of the East Anglican Bishops' Convention on
the Proper Treatment of Migrant Plumbers a joke,
in case you were about to look it up. But I'd like to think
that, once they fully understand that their government's
policy is tearing apart families and displacing people who
were born here and have lived in this country for decades,
they will care.
the petitioners in this case, we never for a minute claim
that the Dominican Republic does not have the sovereign
right to control the immigration of foreigners into its
territory. Our argument is simply that in exercising this
control, the Dominican government must take steps to safeguard
the rights of those subject to its immigration procedures.
Especially in a country where so many people both
foreigners and nationals are undocumented, every
individual has a right to the opportunity to show that she
is in the Dominican Republic legally. Furthermore, those
that are ultimately selected to be deported have a right
to collect their belongings and to humane treatment while
in the custody of Dominican migration officials.