Posted on Fri, Feb. 10, 2006

The dividing line
Tensions are rising along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic as the Dominican Republic cracks down on illegal immigration.


DAJABON, Dominican Republic - Benette Pierre remembers precisely how she survived last month a tragic odyssey across the Haitian-Dominican border in a crammed, sealed truck: She closed her eyes and took short, quick breaths.

She doesn't know what happened to her husband. She did not see him among the 24 dead bodies tossed out of the truck and onto a Dominican roadside when smugglers of Haitian migrants realized the bulk of their cargo had suffocated to death.

''It was really bad. I couldn't breathe,'' she said. ``When they stopped the truck and threw the dead people out, I jumped out. I think the truck continued with my . . . husband on it.''

Pierre was one of the survivors of a tragedy that has rocked the Dominican Republic and strained the long-tenuous relations between the two nations. Human rights activists say it was the product of flawed immigration policies in a country that depends on migrant workers from its poorer neighbor, but prefers to shut the door on them.

As Dominicans see it, with some one million Haitians living in this nation of 8.8 million people, they are being forced to shoulder the consequences of a failed state in Haiti. There have been rising acts of mob violence against Haitians, triggered by random crimes and competition for jobs -- and some would say discrimination against their darker-skinned neighbors.

''These people need to understand what their territorial boundaries are,'' said Sonia Mateo Espinosa, governor of the border province of Dajabón. ``We are going to defend our Dominicanness; that is above everything else and most important.''

The Dominican government has carried out mass deportations and a crackdown along the 242-mile border, and the Supreme Court here recently ruled that the Dominican-born children of Haitian illegal migrants cannot be issued birth certificates. Legally, they do not exist and generally must leave school by eighth grade for lack of IDs, unless they buy fake ones.

And so a legacy of enmity between the two neighbors, which dates back to when Haiti ruled the Dominican Republic for 22 years after its liberation from Spain, shows no sign of letting up. When Dominican President Leonel Fernández visited Haiti in December, he was met with burning tires and flying rocks.


Dominicans along the border say that troubles worsened two years ago after the departure of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The chronic poverty that plagues Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, spilled across the border as more people fled violence and a collapsed state. But the mass roundups and deportations of suspected illegal Haitian migrants have been going on for years, usually starting after the annual sugar harvest, a labor-intensive time that lures many Haitians across the border.

Haitians in the Dominican Republic ''would just as soon be invisible because they live in fear of violence and deportation,'' said Antonio Pol Emil, who runs the Dominican-Haitian Cultural Center in Santo Domingo, the capital.

The latest round of tensions began in May, when the Dominican government deported at least 2,000 Haitians following the killing of a Dominican woman who was hacked to death in an apparent robbery attempt, allegedly by Haitians. The victim's neighbors in the tiny village of Hatillo Palma, about an hour's drive from Dajabón, attacked the town's Haitian farmworkers, burning their shacks and running them out of town.

''They set fire to whatever was useless to them and whatever was useful, they kept,'' said Carmelo Estiel, who after 13 years living in the Dominican Republic as a migrant worker was chased from his home. ``Everyone had to leave. Anyone they encountered was going to wind up hacked to pieces.''

Two Haitians were found decapitated nearby a month later.

Estiel and a group of about 50 remaining men now live a short distance away from the murder scene, sleeping on the floor under a structure with a tin roof and no walls. They earn about $5 a day and live on the land of a Dominican because they had nowhere else to go.

''We didn't want them here. . . . We held a meeting and came to a decision: They had to go.'' said Tomás Quiñones, one of the townspeople, who denied using violence against the Haitians.


''This needs to be resolved on a national level,'' Quiñones added, enjoying an evening at Luna's Grocery Store, owned by the murder victim, Maritza Núñez. ``The Dominican Republic needs Haitians. We can't just let our agriculture industry collapse.''

Núñez's husband, Domingo Antonio Luna, the scars from the machete attack visible across his face, remained silent.

Dominican federal officials deny there have been mass deportations and say activists and the media exaggerate the repatriations. But they acknowledge trouble controlling the border, where drugs and guns are smuggled and corruption is rampant.

''The border is a weak point for us,'' Minister of Interior Franklin Almeyda told The Miami Herald. ``We could have better control of that.''

He blamed the United Nations for not doing a better job of pacifying Haiti after Aristide's ouster, but added that some of the problems would be resolved if Dominican employers would quit exploiting Haitian migrants and offer them the same salaries as Dominicans.

Almeyda defended denying birth certificates to the migrants' children, saying that was supported by the constitution. The constitution says anyone born in the Dominican Republic is entitled to Dominican citizenship, but the Supreme Court decided that does not apply to people who are ``in transit.''

He pointed out that the U.S. citizenship given to the children of migrants can cause problems when authorities deport the parents and leave the kids behind.

''These are hard-working people,'' said public prosecutor Francisco Dom*nguez Brito. ``But it brings all kinds of problems: health, education, public services. Imagine if 10,000 people landed right now in a park in Miami. What are you going to do with them?''

When a Dominican businessman was killed in December and mob violence followed, the government cracked down on illegal migration by replacing corrupt border agents who had been taking bribes to allow migrants to cross the border. But that only drove the migrants into the hands of smugglers.

Pierre said she and her husband paid the equivalent of $67 for the journey in which the 24 people ultimately died. What was a quick jaunt across a knee-high river now usually calls for a two-to-three-week walk through mountains to dodge the guards.

Carlos Louis, another of the Haitian farmworkers chased from his home after the Núñez murder last year, said it recently took him two weeks on foot. He encountered guards who robbed instead of arrested him.

''I am from a poor country,'' Louis said. ``I am poor and just looking for a life.''