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In Dominican Republic, conflicting attitudes toward Haiti

The unease over the influx of Haitians mirrors the immigration debate in the US.

Haitian worker, Dominican Republic
A Haitian worker carries bananas at the frontier line between Malpase in Haiti and Jimani in Dominican Republic, April 10, 2007. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — It’s not as if Fabiola Jean had much back in Haiti. The “boutique” she recalls romantically was really just a tiny wood stall, scantly bigger than a walk-in shower.

But in a city where vendors sell food, clothes and shoes from blankets and makeshift tables, Jean's shack gave her a leg up, even if it was only a shack. Until it fell down, just like her little house, on Jan. 12, when “Goudou Goudou” destroyed Port au Prince. Haitians refer to the 7.0 quake that killed at least 300,000 and displaced 1.2 million as “Goudou Goudou” because, they say, that’s the sound the ground made that day.

Like so many Haitians before her, Jean crossed the border for the Dominican Republic, a wealthier neighbor on the eastern two-thirds of the shared island of Hispaniola. Today, she sells fruit alongside dozens of other Haitian immigrants on a busy market street in the capital Santo Domingo.

The Dominican migration director, Sigfrido Pared Perez, estimated that the earthquake led to a 15-percent increase in the Haitian migrant population. Because most are not documented, a reliable population count doesn’t exist. The government has suggested it’s as many as 1 million, researchers say it’s about 300,000. Regardless, Haitians make up the largest foreign population.

“Not everyone had what I had in Haiti. I never had plans to leave Port au Prince,” Jean said in broken Spanish, relying on a handful of Haitians to help translate from Creole, “especially not to come here.”

Haitians have migrated to the Dominican Republic for nearly 100 years, first to work on the vast sugar plantations and later to construction sites and to jobs at the country’s famous beaches. Cheap Haitian labor helped the Dominican economy surge, growing at nearly 10 percent some years, according to the World Bank.

At the same time, they’ve faced widespread discrimination and have been blamed for a litany of maladies, from rising crime to overcrowded hospitals. It’s a contradiction best captured by the title of the most authoritative book on the topic: “Needed But Unwanted.”

But migrants like Jean who have come since the earthquake add a complicated new twist to an old conundrum: The Dominican Republic has won international praise for its commitment to helping Haiti recover and rebuild from the earthquake, but its government and society are so intolerant of Haitians that they’ve drawn international criticism.

When Dominican President Leonel Fernandez was in Washington in mid-July, President Barack Obama said the Dominican Republic “saved lives.” It was the first country to provide humanitarian aid and to help rescue Haitians trapped in rubble. Fernandez has pledged ongoing assistance and to promote trade and economic ties. Dominicans have even gone to lengths to help Haiti preserve its cultural patrimony.

On July 31, Fernandez met with Haitian President Rene Preval to formally relaunch the bilateral commission. The two leaders pledged to cooperate closely in several areas, including tourism, agriculture, trade, education and health projects.

Fernandez called it the dawning of a new age of cooperation between the countries. “We can encourage the process of development between the two countries and find solutions to what have traditionally been conflicted and misunderstood areas, like that of migration,” he said, according to a transcript.

The two countries have long been urged to work more closely to solve shared problems like environmental degradation and poverty. But the paramount issue has always been migration.

“Before you can get to any other area, like trade, you need to address migration,” said Bridget Wooding, a researcher and author of “Needed But Unwanted.”

In many ways, the situation mirrors the immigration debate in the United States. Both involve a porous border that separates a wealthier country from a poorer neighbor. Migrants leave in search of a job. They send money home. Many end up staying, illegally. And like the anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S., the Dominican argument against Haitians comes down to economics. The Haitians, they say, are a drain on the government. They take jobs. They strain already overcrowded health clinics and hospitals. Dominican authorities deported an average of 20,417 Haitians a year from 2003 to 2008, according to a report from the Universidad Centroamericana.