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A Haitian worker crosses a border fence separating Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A Haitian worker crosses the border fence separating the Dominican Republic town of Jimani from the Haitian town of Malpasse, August 26, 2015 (AP photo by Dieu Nalio Chery).

How a Broken Migration Policy Has Divided Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Friday, March 23, 2018

On Feb. 27, the president of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina, declared that his government was sending a contingent of 900 soldiers, aided by surveillance drones, to secure the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The two countries share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, but significant economic disparities between them have fueled migration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic for decades, a phenomenon that some hard-line Dominicans describe as a “quiet invasion.” In an email interview, Maria Cristina Fumagalli, a professor of literature at the University of Essex and the author of “On the Edge, Writing the Border Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” and Bridget Wooding, the director of Observatory Caribbean Migrants in Santo Domingo, discuss the migration issue and how it has affected relations between the neighboring states.

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WPR: How significant of an issue for the Dominican Republic is the migration of Haitians across the border? Is it becoming more problematic?

Maria Fumagalli and Bridget Wooding: Immigration to the Dominican Republic throughout the 20th century was largely spurred on by its economic growth, initially in the sugar cane industry and subsequently in other productive sectors that ceased to attract native laborers. Historically, immigration from Haitian laborers filled the overwhelming bulk in this labor gap, which was fueled in part by political instability and the lack of economic opportunities across the border in Haiti.

Nonetheless, this large but necessary labor force has failed to be properly integrated into Dominican society. A key reason for this has been the unregulated flow of Haitian migrant laborers since interstate agreements lapsed in 1986, following the collapse of the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti. The unauthorized status of Haitian immigrants has made them vulnerable to human rights abuses, including discrimination in access to education and health services. Moreover, extreme nationalist factions in the Dominican Republic episodically whip up xenophobic sentiments as a distraction from domestic problems. At the moment, some top politicians are using the issue to distract from corruption scandals tied to the Americas-wide Odebrecht scandal that originated in Brazil. Deportations are routinely used to remove Haitians with allegedly irregular migration status, but, since due process is not routine, these actions sidestep international standards. Accordingly, Haitian authorities are challenged with handling large influxes of involuntary returnees with little or no notice.

The labor migration corridor between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a huge challenge to good governance, and it has produced a migration system characterized by informality and the circular movement of people. The recent escalation in border security and surveillance does not actually correspond to an increase in cross-border immigration. Rather, it represents the ultra-nationalists’ habitual use of fear-mongering for ulterior motives. Preliminary results from the official 2017 survey of all immigrants to the Dominican Republic demonstrate that there has been no significant influx of Haitians over the past five years.

But despite anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic, these migrants are an important part of society and the economy, contributing 6 percent of GDP and filling a void in jobs that Dominicans no longer want.

WPR: What policies has the Dominican government put in place to curb migration, and how much impact have they had on Haiti and Haitians?

Fumagalli and Wooding: Throughout much of the previous century, legislation pertaining to immigrants from Haiti was largely defined by the ethnically discriminatory policies adopted by the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo between 1930 and 1961, and President Joaquin Balaguer, who ruled periodically between 1960 and 1996. However, by the turn of the 21st century, as migrant Haitian labor branched out into various economic spheres, from agriculture to construction and even services, there has been a struggle between competing ideological factions in Dominican politics over how to revise the obsolete legislation pertaining to migration.

That struggle has resulted in the adoption of significant and often divisive legal measures. These include the 2004 Migration Law, which, among other things, classified undocumented migrants as “in transit,” and hence deprived their children born in the Dominican Republic of an automatic right to citizenship, which they enjoyed under the constitution. This left the law on shaky ground, and in 2010, a new Dominican Constitution was adopted that contained a conditionality clause on birthright citizenship. This clause stipulated that persons without legal residence could no longer document their Dominican-born children as Dominicans. In 2011, the Rules of Procedure for the 2004 Migration Law were introduced, making it even more difficult to obtain legal status by requiring more onerous steps, like paperwork that is hard to come by. In 2013, the National Regularization Plan for Foreigners, or PNRE, was adopted, seeking to correct the immigration status of people in the country illegally by allowing irregular migrants to apply for legal status. In practice, there are obstacles to aligning and ensuring complementarity between these initiatives. Currently the migration status of some 250,000 Haitian immigrants remains unclear.

WPR: How has this issue affected relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

Fumagalli and Wooding: The treatment of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic, as well as their descendants born in the country, has often been the cause of discord between the two countries. For instance, relations were considerably strained in late 2013 when the Constitutional Tribunal of Santo Domingo effectively denationalized some 133,000 Dominicans, mainly of Haitian ancestry, alleging that they had been registered by administrative error going back as far as 1929. In response, the previous Haitian administration of President Michel Martelly declared that people who had had their nationality stripped, even though they had Haitian ancestry, did not have the automatic right to Haitian nationality. The Dominican authorities were force to backtrack, and they adopted a new naturalization law as a palliative measure that should have remedied the situation of some affected persons. The new naturalization law was not fully applied, however, and only around 13,000 of 55,000 positively audited persons had their Dominican nationality restored.

The current administration of President Jovenel Moise in Haiti has tried to help the situation by accelerating the pace at which putative Haitians may acquire documentation needed by the Dominican Republic to register them, including passports that many Haitians seeking legal status do not have. Until there is a fix to this broken migration system, in which a porous border and inadequate legislative framework encourage irregular migration and corresponding arbitrary deportations, relations between the two countries will remain cool.

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