76ºF

17.4K Haitians leave Dominican Republic voluntarily, authorities say

Dominican government launches information campaign, while voluntary departure program goes on until July 6

Dominican officials release update on effects of new immigration policy.
Dominican officials release update on effects of new immigration policy. (COURTESY OF THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC'S OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENCY)

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti – Several mornings a week for the past five years, Smith Laflur has left his one-room cinder-block shack, walked past the stray goats and the sour cherry tree, down the quiet dirt lanes and out into the shouts and motorcycle roar of this clamoring border town.

He has stepped around the smoldering trash piles and the clothes drying on the bank of the Massacre River, which separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and hopped up onto the border bridge on his way to another day's work.

At the metal gate, he hasn't showed a passport — or papers of any kind — but has mentioned his boss, a customs official who owns several houses, and with that he has crossed from Haiti and into Dajabon.

Over the years, Laflur has built a swimming pool, erected concrete walls, fixed toilets and swept the patio at the Drink Bar — the type of hard manual labor that feeds his five children and is far harder to find in his native Haiti.

But his daily routine, and the livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of Haitians, has been put at risk by new immigration rules that intend to oust Haitians who do not have documentation to stay in the Dominican Republic -- even those who were born there.

"Everything we can get is here," Laflur said at one of the Drink Bar's wooden tables in Dajabon. "I don't know how to find work in Haiti."

In the days before the June 17 deadline for undocumented migrants to register for residency permits — if they could prove they had lived in the Dominican Republic before 2011 — many predicted police roundups and waves of deportations.

So far, what has happened instead are voluntary departures, sponsored by the government until July 6. And as of Thursday about 17,416 had benefited from their voluntary exit program, authorities said.

MAP | Quanaminthe, Haiti - Dajabon, Dominican Republic

'350K FOREIGNERS PROCESSED'

On Thursday, authorities in Santo Domingo ignored the suffering of workers like Laflur and painted a positive picture on what they referred to as "the most ambitious initiative in the history of the country in the context of regularization and documentation."

About 350,000 undocumented were "within the legal framework" and their rights were protected, they said. Since the execution of the law began, about 288,466 applicants have been registered, they said. Also, about 55,000 Dominicans of Haitians descent will be able to become citizens, and 12,000 of those have already been able to pick up their documentation, the president's officials said.

The government also claims to have received 8,755 applications from undocumented migrants before the June 17 deadline. They will be allowed to apply for citizenship within two years, authorities said.

The government also launched a social media propaganda campaign claiming that 300,000 had allegedly benefitted from the new law.  On the government YouTube video published Wednesday, a man identified as Angelot Dieudonne Rodriguez, claimed to be a student in Santo Domingo happy with the law.

"Everyone's dream is to be able to seek a better life," Dieudonne said in the video.

RUSH TO LEAVE

The Haitian commune of Ouanaminthe is now the scene of returning Haitian families packed into trucks piled high with suitcases and burlap sacks.

In their rush to leave, they abandoned furniture and appliances; some said immigration agents stole money or threatened harm if they didn't flee. Smith Blanco, a 23-year-old who worked as a cook in Santo Domingo, stood in a dirt lot with his belongings, not sure where to go next.

"I didn't want to come here, but I was worried," he said. "Their president wants all the Haitians to leave. So we're leaving."

The Dominican government has encouraged these departures, providing free bus rides to the border.

"The government of the Dominican Republic has not expelled one person as of this hour," Roberto Rodríguez Marchena, the president's spokesman, said in an interview Monday night. "We didn't create this; we didn't invent this to mistreat people or expel people. What we want — and the international community has to understand this — we want to order our country. Please, let us bring order to our country."

The roots of the current immigration policies date to a 2004 law that was challenged in court and not implemented until last year, during the presidency of Danilo Medina. The law calls for registering the estimated 600,000 people — Haitians or people of Haitian descent — living without documents in the country.

Rodríguez, the spokesman, said that a quarter of the country's health budget is consumed by Haitians living in the country illegally and not paying taxes and that more than 40 percent of the births along the border are to Haitian women.

The government has described its new program as measured — and with an eye to avoiding disruptions to industries relying on manual labor and to the human rights of Haitians. There are exceptions for retirees and university students. So far, 288,000 people have begun the registration process. The remainder, roughly the same number, are subject to deportation if the government chooses.

"These people," Rodríguez said, "that are in our territory should go to Haiti and look for their documents, and then request to come to our country with a student visa, or a work visa.

"What we can do is apply [the law] with humanity, and this is what we're going to do. In our government, we're not going to abuse a single person."

TIRED OF SNEAKING AROUND

On Saturday morning, Smith Laflur headed for the bridge. It was his son's third birthday, and if he was going to afford a present, he needed to get to the Drink Bar. He pushed through the crowd to the border gate. He told the guard who he was, and his boss's name, but this time the man shook his head.

"Not today," he said. "Things aren't good right now."

Laflur argued for a while, then turned away and sat on the bridge railing. In the past, he'd considered trying to get to the United States, but he was afraid of the open ocean. He didn't have the money to apply for a Haitian passport, and his boss in the Dominican Republic had never helped him with a work permit. He was tired of sneaking around.

"I want to arrive in a country with my own papers," he said. "I want to be able to walk as a free man."

The Washington Post reporter Joshua Partlow and Local10.com reporter Andrea Torres contributed to this story.

Follow Local 10 News on Twitter @WPLGLocal10News