DAJABON, Dominican Republic — Bien-Aimé St. Clair frowned as the stream of older Haitian migrants pushed past him. Accused of living in the Dominican Republic illegally, they knew they had no choice but to go back across the border to Haiti.
But St. Clair, 18, hesitated. He shouted at an immigration agent.
“Boss! Hey! I don’t know anyone there,” he yelled in Spanish, motioning toward Haiti as he stood on the frontier that the two countries share on the island of Hispaniola.
St. Clair was a child when his mother brought him to the Dominican Republic, and though his life has been hard — his mom died when he was young, his father disappeared, and he was left alone to raise his disabled brother — it’s the only life he has known.
And now, he was being forced to leave, like more than 31,000 people deported by the Dominican Republic to Haiti this year, more than 12,000 of them in just the past three months — a huge spike, observers say. As the rest of the world closes its doors to Haitian migrants, the country that shares an island with Haiti also is cracking down in a way that human rights activists say hasn’t been seen in decades.
This story was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The increasing mistreatment of the country’s Haitians, they say, coincided with the rise of Luis Abinader, who took office as president in August 2020.
They accuse the government of targeting vulnerable populations, separating children from their parents and racial profiling — Haiti is overwhelmingly Black, while the majority Dominicans identify as mixed race. Dominican authorities, they say, are not only seeking out Haitians who recently crossed illegally into the Dominican Republic, but also those who have long lived there.
“We’ve never seen this,” said William Charpantier, national coordinator for the nonprofit National Roundtable for Migration and Refugees. “The government is acting like we’re at war.”
They’ve arrested Haitians who crossed illegally into the Dominican Republic; Haitians whose Dominican work permits have expired; those born in the DR to Haitian parents but denied citizenship; even, activists say, Black Dominicans born to Dominican parents whom authorities mistake for Haitians.
Haitian officials and activists also say the government is violating laws and agreements by deporting pregnant women, separating children from parents and arresting people between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Meanwhile, activists say hostility against Haitians is spiraling as Abinader unleashed a flurry of anti-Haitian actions.
He suspended a student-visa program for Haitians, prohibited companies from drawing more than 20% of their workforce from migrant workers and ordered Haitian migrants to register their whereabouts.
He announced an audit of some 220,000 people previously awarded immigration status to determine if they still qualify, and he warned that anyone who provides transportation or housing to undocumented migrants will be fined. And he suspended pension payments owed to hundreds of former sugarcane workers — most of them Haitian.
The measures follow Abinader’s announcement in February that his administration would build a multimillion-dollar, 118-mile (190-kilometer) wall along the Haitian border.
The construction has begun. Meanwhile, life has become ever more miserable for Haitians who remain in the Dominican Republic and those, like St. Clair, who have been deported.
The teenager watched as the bus that dropped him off at the border pulled away, empty except for a machete, hammer and other work tools the other migrants were carrying when they were detained.
“Hey!” he yelled.
No response. St. Clair clicked his tongue and sighed.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic have long had a wary and difficult relationship, stained by a 1937 massacre in which thousands of Haitians were killed under Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Racism and rejection of Haitians is still palpable, with Dominicans cursing them or making disparaging comments when they see them on the street.
Still, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were believed to live in the Dominican Republic, even before many fled Haiti in recent months in the wake of a presidential assassination, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, a severe shortage of fuel and a spike in gang-related violence and kidnappings.
“We don’t come here to take over the country. We’re trying to survive,” said Gaetjens Thelusma of the nonprofit group We Will Save Haiti.
The government has repeatedly said it treats migrants humanely. Abinader recently told the United Nations that his country had borne the burden of dealing with the ripples of Haiti’s crises on its own, without much help from the rest of the world.
While his country has demonstrated solidarity and collaboration with Haiti and will keep doing so, he said, “I also reiterate that there is not and will never be a Dominican solution to the crisis in Haiti.”
His own ministers have referred darkly to Haitians as invaders: Speaking in favor of the border wall, Dominican Migration Director Enrique García said in October that “we cannot lose our country.”
“What option do you have when you can’t handle your neighbor any longer? Protect your house, your property and your family,” he told D’Agenda, a local TV news program.
And in early November, Jesús Vázquez, Dominican minister of the interior and police, inaugurated the first of several dozen offices where foreigners will be required to register.
He told reporters: “The main threat that the Dominican Republic faces nowadays is Haiti, and we are called upon to defend our homeland.”
Rosemita Doreru was nine months pregnant when she was detained in early November inside a hospital in the capital of Santo Domingo. She was later deported, leaving behind three young children.
“Every day they ask me, ‘When is Mom coming home? When is Mom coming home?’” said her partner, Guens Molière. “They cry almost daily.”
She gave birth in Haiti; Molière remains angry that officials did not let him send her a suitcase with her clothes and items for their newborn before she was deported. And he does not know what will happen next — he can’t afford the $260 that human smugglers are now charging to illegally cross pregnant women and those with young children into the Dominican Republic.
Doreru is not alone in her misery. On a recent afternoon in Dajabón, authorities deported more than 40 unaccompanied children and dozens of lactating women, said Rolbert Félicien with the nonprofit Institute of Social Wellbeing and Research. If the children’s parents or relatives are not found, they are placed in an orphanage in Haiti.
Dozens of Haitian migrants interviewed in other Dominican cities and towns accused Abinader’s administration of treating them “like dogs.”
The treatment is not reserved only for those who entered the country unlawfully; on a bustling market day in the dusty border town of Dajabon, at least one Dominican official used a stun gun on migrants who crossed the border legally to buy and sell goods.
“Deportations exist in every country, but they are mistreating Haitians,” said 25-year-old Sabrina Bierre, a street vendor who sells used clothes and other items in a section of Santo Domingo known as Little Haiti. “They are undocumented, but they’re not animals.”
Earlier this month, 26-year-old Véronique Louis gave birth to a daughter at a hospital in Santo Domingo. She returned days later for further treatment because they botched the cesarean, but medical staff denied her care, according to her husband, Wilner Rafael.
“They said they weren’t treating Blacks, and that Haitians aren’t people,” he said. Louis nodded.
Louis now has an open wound that is a couple of inches wide and winces in pain every time she moves. A Haitian doctor from the community stops by on occasion to treat Louis at their cramped room, tucked inside a maze of dilapidated homes covered in soot.
These days, many Haitian migrants and those of Haitian descent stay home out of fear of the authorities, or leave the house one at a time to avoid abandoning a child if both parents are deported.
On a recent morning at the country’s main migration office, dozens of Haitians clutching folders, papers and passports lined up in hopes of renewing work permits, something many said they’ve done repeatedly to no avail; activists accuse the government of refusing to process the paperwork so they have reason to arrest them.
“Things are bad for us right now,” said Edouard Louis, who came to the Dominican Republic more than 30 years ago to work in sugarcane fields under a bilateral agreement. He now sells locks, chargers and USB cables at a small outdoor market in the outskirts of Santo Domingo, earning just enough to buy eggs and rice for sustenance.
His work permit expired last year, and despite repeated attempts to renew it, he hasn’t received a response from the government. He still carries that permit along with older ones in a weathered black wallet in hopes that if he gets detained, he can prove to authorities that he crossed the border legally.
Those born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian immigrants are in a similar situation. Tens of thousands of them were never awarded citizenship and don’t have the documents needed to work or attend university. The Dominican Republic awards citizenship only to those born to Dominican parents or legal residents as a result of a 2013 court ruling that the Organization of American States said “created a stateless situation never before seen in America.”
The ruling was applied retroactively to those born between 1929 and 2010.
A year later, the government approved another law that offered a path to citizenship if they were born in the Dominican Republic, but a large majority have still not been able to do so, especially those whose parents do not have the required documents.
“I still cry about it,” said 16-year-old Erika Jean, who was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents and lives in Batey La Lima, an impoverished community surrounded by a massive sugarcane plantation in the southern Dominican coastal city of La Romana.
“I truly have an ugly future,” she said. “I’ve lost all hope of obtaining the documents.”
Luis Batista, a 70-year-old retired sugarcane worker who came to the Dominican Republic in 1972 on a government-sponsored work permit that has since expired, said: “We have absolutely nothing here. No papers. No pension. No medical care,” he said.
In his neighborhood, children fly kites made of plastic bags, make face masks out of discarded cartons, tie a string around a bucket to bounce it on nearby potholes. Some homes are made of corrugated metal, with discarded rice bags stuffed into the holes of rickety wooden doors to keep out pests.
Batista said he is partially blind after spending years in burning sugar cane fields next to his wife, 68-year-old Ramonita Charles, whose father died while working in those fields and received no medical help from the company that employed him.
“They don’t give us a pension. We don’t have a job. We can’t go out on the street,” said Charles, who grew up working in sugarcane fields and is illiterate. She now sells eggs, chips, cookies and other small items out of a tin shack to sustain her four siblings, three children and her mother, a former sugarcane worker who is in her early 90s.
And now, there are the deportations.
“You go out and you don’t know if you’re going to come back home,” she said.
The raids, deportations and mistreatment by the government have dissuaded some Haitians from crossing into the Dominican Republic, according to a human smuggler who only gave his first name as Luis Fernando.
He was born in Haiti but has lived in the Dominican Republic for 19 years. He paints and works in construction but also helps migrants cross illegally, paying Dominican officials anywhere from $35 to $90 to look the other way. In mid-November, he placed a group waiting to cross on hold.
“For now, it’s best that they stay over there. Until things cool down,” he said.
And yet, some still insist on making their way to the DR.
St. Clair, the teenager marooned in Dajabon, looked around as immigration officials who had detained him left and authorities prepared to close the border for the night. Gone was the stream of border crossers, the rumble of trucks and roar of motorcycles carrying plantains, onions and other goods.
Apologetic UNICEF workers had told him they couldn’t help — he turned 18 in October and was now considered an adult.
St. Clair began walking back toward the Dominican Republic. One concerned immigration official yelled after him, “Where are you going to sleep? You don’t have any money.”
St. Clair didn’t respond. As the sun set, he slipped past authorities, sneaked into the Dominican Republic and disappeared down a quiet street.