Melila, a 30-year-old Haitian national, moved to the Dominican Republic to study medicine 12 years ago. She found love, got married, and had four children with a Dominican citizen. But when her mother sent her money to complete the naturalization process, her request was denied.
A few weeks ago, she and her family packed up their bags and “self-deported” from the country that they’ve called home. They likely face hurdles ahead. All four of Melila’s children were born in the Dominican Republic “and had never been to Haiti and do not speak Creole or French,” her cousin, Marie Dorelus, told ThinkProgress. “Her husband barely speaks Creole.”
The family is now supported by Melila’s mother in Haiti.
Melila’s exodus from the Dominican Republic comes at a time when the Dominican government has begun forcibly removing Haitians and other Dominicans of Haitian descent, as part of an effort to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
In 2013, the Dominican Republic’s highest court ruled to retroactively exclude citizenship to children of Haitian migrants born after 1929, whose births were never registered in the country. After international outcry, the country adopted a new law — known as the National Plan for the Regularization of Foreigners (PNRE) — allowing people born to undocumented parents to request residency permits as foreigners.
The Dominican government gave immigrants until last month to register with the authorities under the PNRE or face deportation proceedings.
Her husband barely speaks Creole.
However, applying for residency under PNRE is no easy feat, and undocumented Haitians are struggling to navigate the process.
Although applicants are supposed to be allowed to provide any of five alternative identification documents, like birth certificates and passports, “in practice DR officials were accepting only a passport,” Mark Phillips at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti wrote in a firsthand account after visiting the Dominican Republic as part of a delegation of human rights lawyers and law students. Rodline Louijeune, another delegate who traveled with Phillips, observed that many Haitians “had laminated cards showing they applied for regularization, but most did not believe that the cards would protect them from forced migration.”
Now, immigrants like Melila feel they have no choice except to “self-deport.”
“I heard from some of my contacts in the DR that the government was encouraging people to self-deport and giving them assurances if they did so,” Cassandre Theano, associate legal officer for equality at Open Society, told ThinkProgress. “Apparently if people were told that if they self-deport… they would be able to come back to the country and regularize their status. However, if they waited for the government to deport them, then they would have a three-year ban from entering the country.”
An estimated 500,000 undocumented Haitians live in the DR, comprising 90 percent of the country’s total immigrant population. Dominican Deputy Interior Minister Washington Gonzalez estimates that about 290,000 Haitians have applied for legal residency so far. The deadline for voluntary exit for immigrants who are unable to register was July 6, a Miami ABC affiliate reported.
More than 25,000 people left the country voluntarily by the end of last month, according to government officials. The Dominican Republican government claimed that it would provide free ground and air transportation to the Haitian border for individuals who weren’t enrolled in the PNRE.
But Phillips saw Haitians paying up to $60 USD to be transported on cargo trucks. Though these were people who chose voluntary return, Phillips stated that “they cited threats and other pressures on them to exit the DR, sometimes originating from DR police and militia.”
Haitian officials who spoke with Phillips also “confirmed” that they “had heard stories of people being threatened with beatings, imprisonment or having their homes burned down if they didn’t leave.”
Leave, leave, get out, leave, respect, you are a demon.
In recent interviews with deportees, Haitian media personality Carel Pedre found that many Haitians did not leave voluntarily.
“An unidentified woman said that she was often the victim of humiliating insults in the Dominican Republic. She was denied medical attention at a hospital and kicked out, she said. ‘Leave, leave, get out, leave, respect, you are a demon,’ a woman said she was told,” according to an ABC affiliate. Other people told Pedre that there was “hunger, a sense of desperation and uncertainty about the job market” in Haiti.
Once they arrive at the border, Haitians have little guidance. “There isn’t a processing center when they come back to Haiti,” Theano said, noting that the Haitian government hasn’t responded quickly enough to the influx of Haitians at the border. “There doesn’t seem like there’s an actual process for the returnees. Some people, if they have family members, they’ll go back to those places. Other people are just languishing in these makeshift places.”
Louijeune pointed out that Haiti’s National Office of Immigration (Office National de la Migration or “ONM”) lacks the resources to help deported Haitians with “access to medical care, food and water, safe means of travel, transitional housing, or employment placements.” Beds at a border shelter meant for deported Haitian immigrants were occupied by customs officers instead, Louijeune noted.
There isn’t much of a support system available. “Most left their livelihoods and/or families behind,” she said.