La Apatrida: Dominicans of Haitian Descent Are Deported and Forgotten

Children in Parc Cadeau often don't get enough to eat.
Photo by Mario Ariza
Children in Parc Cadeau often don't get enough to eat.

Ena Louissaint and her four children have lived for the past year and a half in a ramshackle hut made from scavenged cardboard, faded blankets, flimsy sticks, and corrugated zinc panels. Leaning to one side, it offers little shelter from the hot, incessant wind that sweeps across the dusty outskirts of Anse-à-Pitres, Haiti. Her place is about a half-hour walk from that remote town of about 20,000 near the Dominican border.

There's little to eat here. The children — Duilyel Jan, Elia, Eliyel, and Loudi — are all under the age of 10. Their hair is brittle and feels hollow. It breaks off when touched, a sign of malnutrition.

"We eat once a day," Louissaint, a tall woman who clearly was once strong and vital but now has a worried face and work-worn hands, says in Spanish. "We eat corn flour and rice sometimes, when we have it."

Louissaint left Haiti when she was 6 years old and grew up some 20 miles away across the border, where she raised yuca, red kidney beans, and pigeon peas on a plot of dry, rocky soil. For most of her life, she was a sharecropper. Eventually, she saved enough money to purchase a herd of goats and operated a small store selling vegetables and clothing.

But then, in July 2015, roving bands of armed Dominican men whom she calls tígueres, which translates to both "thugs" and "tigers," began showing up on motorcycles in Aguas Negras, the tiny hill town Louissaint called home. They came in the evenings. Often drunk, they carried torches and pistols. They leered at Ena and the other Haitian women of the town, and then they told all of the Haitians to get out — or else — regardless of whether they had spent their whole lives there.

Louissaint heard they had burned down a house in the neighboring hamlet of Ávila. The Kreyol-language stations on her radio warned of ethnic violence and that immigrants would soon have to register with the Dominican government. There would be mass deportations and perhaps a reprise of the Parsley Massacre, the 1937 mass murder of as many as 30,000 ethnic Haitians.

So Ena and her family fled. One day in late July 2015, taking only what she could carry, she simply walked across the border into Haiti. The tígueres stole everything she left behind. "We lost the small store we owned, along with our livestock," she says, adding that the thieves were never punished.

"Here, we can barely find water to drink," she says, her voice choking with despair.

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Now Louissaint is 33 years old and lives in Parc Cadeau, a remote, squalid refugee camp that houses some 2,000 people. It's a haphazard collection of huts, hovels, and lean-tos that stretches alongside a dusty white gravel road. Ena and the others drink water from the dirty Pedernales River or a nearby agricultural canal. Both sources are untreated, and an outbreak of cholera last year killed 14 people.

There is no electricity and no sanitation in the camp, and dirt paths connect randomly placed abodes. It was all built in a rush with whatever material residents could find. No one expected to live here for years. The sturdiest shelters are composed of sticks covered in mud. They're roofed in thatch that keeps out most of the water. The flimsiest are made of rain-warped cardboard and rusting sheets of corrugated zinc. One family has lived for months in a donated Coleman camping tent. There are no trees for shade, only thorny shrubs.

Though nearby Anse-á-Pitres and Pedernales are home to a shared bazaar where everything from Norwegian herring to Vietnamese-made Converse sneakers are sold, Louissaint has little chance of finding the cash to become a vendor — or even of renting land to cultivate. "Here, we can barely find water to drink sometimes," she says, her voice choking with despair, "and no one is helping."

Louissaint holds little hope of returning to the country where she grew up and that she knows best. She doesn't have Haitian or Dominican identity documents. Nor does she have the 50 Dominican pesos to bribe a border guard. And she doesn't want to talk about what happens to Haitian women who get caught crossing the border without the requisite bribe.

A year and a half ago, Louissaint was one of the 750,000 Haitians living and working in the Dominican Republic. But a series of events, set off by a 2013 Dominican Supreme Court ruling that stripped more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their birthright citizenship, forced her to flee. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam condemned that ruling. The United States government remained mute.

The law has become part of what is known as la apatrida — the civil genocide, which declared Dominicans of Haitian descent born as far back as the 1930s to be "in transit" — only passing through — even if they had spent their entire lives in the Dominican Republic. After October 2013, an already marginalized underclass suddenly couldn't legally own property, vote, or work formally in the private sector. Nor could they send their children to school past the fourth grade. The ruling was found to violate the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Dominican government ignored that finding.

Haitians and their Dominican-born children, who in some cases barely spoke Kreyol, were required to register by July 2015. They were 7 percent of the population, but few had the required birth certificates and identification cards.

Panic spread. Newspapers in Santo Domingo began speaking of the "invasion" of a "dark army" whose greatest weapon was a high birth rate — of the need to defend the fatherland against uneducated savages. Erroneous reports circulated of a Haitian being lynched in the Dominican city of Santiago. Louissaint's worries peaked when the tígueres showed up in the hills near her home in Pedernales, just across the border from Anse-à-Pitres.

In summer 2015, more than 70,000 people fled the Dominican Republic for Haiti. The Dominican government, in an Orwellian twist, called them "voluntary returnees." Like Louissaint, they lost their homes, businesses, and property. For a time, international news and human rights organizations publicized the refugees' problems. Then they were forgotten.

Louissaint and the other residents of Parc Cadeau tell a story of intense intimidation and fear. Long after they were chased down from the hills and left to live in wretched poverty on this dust-filled plain, they remain here, out of the international spotlight and out of luck. "No one is helping us anymore," Louissaint says, "not even the parish priest."

click to enlarge "I left because of the threats," says Wayom, who has lived in a tent for more than a year. "The bosses wanted us out." - PHOTO BY MARIO ARIZA
"I left because of the threats," says Wayom, who has lived in a tent for more than a year. "The bosses wanted us out."
Photo by Mario Ariza

Eliseo Jean Luis isn't quite sure how old he is. A tall, rail-thin, gray-haired father of 11, he thinks he must be pushing 60. But because he was born in a rural part of the Dominican Republic to illiterate parents who were never issued a birth certificate, he can't be sure. Though he speaks fluent Spanish and can name more Dominican towns than Haitian ones, he doesn't plan to ever go back to the land of his birth. He has lived in dusty Parc Cadeau for a year and a half but would like to resettle deeper into Haiti. "A thousand pesos could get me out of here," he says.

Jean Luis left his home because he was afraid. He and his wife walked across the border and into Haiti in early July 2015. They left behind a life growing beans in Las Mercedes, a hill town 13 miles from Pedernales. When he talks about his decision to return to Haiti, his voice drops to a hushed tone. "The tígueres showed up one night in June. They were on motorcycles. They had machetes and pistols."

Jean Luis says they caught him on the road as he was walking back to his home. He thinks they didn't hurt him because he looks so old. But they insulted him and told him to return to his country, or else.

He says he felt like "the tígueres from Pedernales wanted to burn us all, and the radio was saying it was going to be like 1937 all over again."

His voice lowers to a whisper when he mentions that far-off year. He's like many Haitians on the island, one of Columbus' first landing spots in the New World. He still shudders at the thought of the genocide perpetrated by American-backed dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo exactly 80 years ago.

The Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic and the mostly Kreyol-speaking Haiti share the island of Hispaniola, a landmass that's 700 miles from Miami and about the size of North Carolina. The island's 137-mile, mountainous border divides the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation from Latin America's fastest-growing economy.

Because the majority of both countries' populations are of African descent, the genocide perpetrated by Dominicans against Haitians can be difficult to understand for Americans, says Harvard professor Lorgia García Peña. "Early in the 16th Century, the Spaniards said, 'Fuck sugar — there's gold in Peru and native people we can exploit,' so they abandoned Hispaniola," she says. "To be negro ["black" in Spanish] meant you were a slave, so even just one drop of white blood meant a better social position."

The French showed up early in the 18th Century and took the western side of the island. They quickly imported millions of slaves and turned the French colony of Saint-Domingue into the richest in the New World. The new influx of slaves meant that being something other than "negro" became much more important to the mixed-race Spaniards on the island's eastern side.

The French slaves heroically rebelled in 1791 and eventually conquered the whole island. Ultimately, Dominicans of all colors rose up against the Haitian occupation and gained independence in 1844.

"Dominican mulattos made the Republic possible," García Peña clarifies, "but then the white people took over."

The United States occupied Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916 and helped a white elite to consolidate power in the latter. Along with building roads and providing sanitation, the United States brought institutionalized racism to the island and began importing Haitian labor to work in the Dominican Republic's sugarcane fields. Since then, Haitian labor has been integral to Dominican success.

"We feel like what the Dominican Republic is doing is equal to some type of apartheid in the Caribbean," says Marleine Bastien, director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami, a community social services nonprofit based in Miami. She helped organize the Haitian diaspora's response to la apatrida. "We went to Congress but got nowhere," Bastien remembers. "We felt that [la apatrida] was very unfair. Haitians had built Dominican infrastructure and were now being kicked out."

One activist, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican writer Junot Díaz, testified before Congress alongside Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat about the civil genocide. The Dominican government responded by stripping Díaz of a national prize he had been given in 2009. Authorities cited his "un-Dominican activities."

Though a law was passed in 2014 to allow Haitians to stay in the Dominican Republic and get access to social services, hundreds of thousands couldn't meet its stringent requirements. Among them: If one lacked proper documents, one would need testimony from two people who had been present at one's birth.

"Hypocritical" is how Bastien describes it. "The interior ministry knew the burden placed on families was too high."

The Dominican government claims that Louissaint, Jean Luis, and the other residents of Parc Cadeau left the country of their own accord — "self-deported."

In a sense, they did. Filled with fear, some 4,000 people fled to Parc Cadeau. Today there are about 2,000 left. Though more than 230,000 Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic have registered for new documents, a half-million haven't.

Recently, deportations have slowed, mob assaults have been reported less often, and there has even been some humanitarian cooperation.

But all of this is far from the mind of Eliseo Jean Luis. His concerns are more immediate: clean water, cash for food, shelter from the dust and sun. Asked about his hope for the future, his face clouds over and his eyes narrow. In a voice choked with emotion, he says, "Everything here is fucked."

Mackenzón Augiste is tired of having to hike up a hill next to Parc Cadeau to defecate. A 27-year-old father of three who was born and raised across the border in the hills above Pedernales, he leans his gaunt, exhausted frame against the sill of his dilapidated hut's only window. Then he speaks in slow, measured, Kreyol-accented Spanish. "I don't feel well here. There's nothing to eat. Sometimes I go days without eating, and I just got over being sick." His sickness shows. His skin is sallow, and he sounds defeated.

Augiste was a cowherd for a Dominican farmer on the other side. With exhaustion, he notes that the camp's eight rudimentary latrines have filled up in the past year and a half. Residents are forced up into the hills or down to the river when they need to go to the bathroom. A similar situation is likely what led to last year's cholera outbreak. "When it's dry, the wind kicks up the shit and the dust and makes us sick. When it rains, everything in my house gets soaked, and we get sick. I'm tired of it." Asked why he hasn't moved farther into Haiti, Mackenzón says he doesn't know the country. He spent his whole life in the Dominican Republic, and on clear days, he stares out across the river toward his former home.

Cadeau means "gift" in Kreyol, which seems entirely ironic, especially as one approaches the camp on a motorbike, leaving the unfinished concrete houses of Anse-à-Pitres behind for the unforgiving, cactus-spiked scrubland of the south of Hispaniola. The settlement sits on a plain some four or five miles wide. From a hill above the camp, one can glimpse the shallow Pedernales River as it bends toward the Caribbean Sea. Across the road from the haphazard collection of slapdash houses and bare gray lots is a series of naked limestone cliffs that marks where the ocean, millions of years ago, used to be.

Asked how he feels since moving, the former cowherd says, "It's been a calamity."

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A farmer named it "gift park" because one of his cows birthed twin calves shortly after he purchased the land. Last winter, as if fulfilling the plot's name, that farmer's son let a few destitute souls squat here. That number grew and then fell as residents left to move deeper into Haiti or were resettled by international organizations.

According to camp residents who did not wish to be identified, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a nonprofit based in Switzerland, gave almost a thousand people money to rent homes in Anse-à-Pitres. But residents report that the organization hasn't helped enough of them, and they complain that after the rent money ran out, the people who had received aid returned because they couldn't find jobs.

Juan Baca, the chief of mission for the IOM in the Dominican Republic, neither conformed nor denied the residents' allegations. He said he had no firsthand experience of the camp. But, he added, "It's possible that many in the camps stayed because they were awaiting the possibility of receiving aid."

Pierre Paul Edouane is not just waiting for aid. In some ways, his life parallels that of Mackenzón. He is also a 27-year-old resident of the camp who was born and raised across the border. A serious and thoughtful man who chooses his words carefully and could use a shave, he cares for the small makeshift chapel built of palm thatch that stands in the center of Parc Cadeau. He helps distribute what little aid arrives these days.

Inside the chapel, Edouane takes advantage of the shadowy coolness to explain why he and so many other residents have stayed in Parc Cadeau despite the precarious conditions.

"There were three kinds of people here last year: The first knew where they were from in Haiti and went back home. The second knew where they were from but didn't have a place to go in Haiti anymore. The third, like me, didn't know Haiti at all. The second and third have stayed."

Edouane isn't even considering a return to the Dominican Republic to register. "I don't have any papers, nor do I have money to go back." He tries not to feel defeated.

He's philosophical about his time spent in the Dominican Republic. "Life over there was better, in the sense that you could eat, but here in Haiti, there is no harassment, no one attacks us." As he speaks, Edouane cradles a coconut. He explains it's from a small plot of Haitian land his father purchased with money earned during 37 years of sharecropping in the Dominican Republic.

He uses yield from the tiny half-acre plot to feed his wife and child. But he must share whatever the land produces with his father's seven other children. Edouane says he feels both Dominican and Haitian, even if he can't return to the country where he was born.

Neither the Haitian government nor local politicians have done much to aid these Dominican-born Parc Cadeau residents. There is not much work to be found aside from the occasional cutting of a tree for charcoal. Nor is there counseling to help folks find jobs in tourism, agriculture, or other industries.

Asked how he feels since moving to Parc Cadeau, Augiste, the former cowherd, says, "It's been a calamity."

click to enlarge For Haitians who have stayed in the Dominican Republic, even registering kids for school is tough. - PHOTO BY MARIO ARIZA
For Haitians who have stayed in the Dominican Republic, even registering kids for school is tough.
Photo by Mario Ariza

Jean Marie Telemac is of Haitian lineage but is different in many ways from the residents of Parc Cadeau. The lean father of five with a sun-weathered face has lived in Las Mercedes, a hill town in the Dominican Republic about 20 miles from Parc Cadeau, since 1986.

When the tígueres came to his town in June 2015, Telemac — with his hard-set jaw, steely eyes, and peasant stubbornness — didn't budge. "I have a good relationship with my Dominican landlord," he explains while softly patting a sheathed machete attached to his belt. There are thousands like him who remained in the hills.

He has traveled to the town of Pedernales, 13 miles from his home, for an appointment at the civil registry the next morning. He has applied for the third time for documents so his two daughters can study in the Dominican Republic. "I would like to see all my children studying," he says.

Telemac is angling for the kind of card that one-third of the Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic have received. But because his daughters were not issued birth certificates by Dominican authorities, "it's going to be difficult," he says. "Since they don't have documents, they can't get documents."

"I was raised there, had my kids there, but I would never go back."

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In a phone interview, the IOM's Baca qualifies the new identity card program as a relative success. He claims few other countries — including the United States — offer immigrants access to social services like the Dominican Republic offers. "It's true that when the deadline was coming, there was a lot of noise and fear in the Haitian community," he says. "But there's been a sea change in the [Dominican] government attitude toward Haitian migration."

Says Harvard's García Peña: "That's bullshit, and you can quote me on that... This is a racialized system of oppression and control. If the idea is to regularize, then why denationalize Dominicans of Haitian descent going back all the way to 1937?"

Telemac's struggles to register his children speak of the program's manifold failures. Authorities want statements from the mayor of Telemac's town and from the midwife who helped his wife deliver their children. The trips from his remote village to try to win approval, he says, are taxing his meager finances.

Life without the card means restricted access to work, travel, and education. It also means constantly having to bribe the notoriously corrupt Dominican police every time they are encountered or risk getting thrown onto a bus and deported. Telemac says he's simply fighting for his children's fair share. He's frustrated by all the red tape but determined to get the documents.

Analuisa Jean, a thin 33-year-old mother of two who was born in the Dominican Republic, says that over the past year and a half, conditions in Parc Cadeau have deteriorated. Food has gotten scarcer. Doctors have stopped visiting. Fuel for cooking has become more expensive. And every month or two, someone's hut burns down because they got distracted while tending a fire.

Still, Jean rejects the idea of returning to the Dominican Republic, even if the situation is bleak. "I was raised there, had my kids there, but I would never go back." She says people in the town of Pedernales threw rocks at her children one morning in June 2015 as they were walking to school. Those people were her neighbors. She says the border police summarily deported friends and family members, and some of her relatives were even beaten.

Unlike most other residents of Parc Cadeau, Jean lived just outside Pedernales, in a neighborhood slightly north of the town. Her old house sat directly across the river from the refugee camp, only a half-hour walk away. She says that in June 2015, "things got so bad I couldn't even get to work. So we fled."

She and her children walked to Haiti one afternoon, crossing the shallow Pedernales River on foot. Though she is now free from the threat of persecution at the hands of vigilantes and Dominican border authorities, Jean is less than sanguine about her new life in Haiti. "Here, there's no work. Here, we're surviving by the grace of God."