by Henry Milner, Rafael Belliard and Jeffrey Oberman

Canada has long had positive relations with the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two countries that share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, and millions of Canadians visit Hispaniola each year. While seldom in the news until recently, the DR has found its way into many news reports and political statements about the plight of Dominicans of Haitian origin. In what follows, the authors of this article, who have lived for different periods in the DR, try to re-establish the facts and assess prospects for the future.

It all began in 2013 with the verdict in the DR’s highest court against Juliana Dequis Pierre.


Juliana Dequis Pierre was born in 1984 in the batey of Los Jovillos in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents who had settled in the DR in the 1970s. In 2008, she applied for a Cédula, the DR’s ID card, and was refused. An initial appeal in court was rejected on the technical grounds that she had supplied a photocopy of her birth certificate. She then appealed to the highest judicial body in the country, the Constitutional Court, and the repercussions of that appeal resonate to this day.

On September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Court again decided against Juliana Dequis Pierre, but its decision – “La Sentencia” – went much further.1 The ruling covered the children of all undocumented persons living in the DR born since the 1929 Constitution was adopted, affecting an estimated 210,000 people born in the DR. Almost all of these people are from families of Haitian origin. The current Dominican Constitution recognizes as citizens all persons born on national territory, except children “of foreign members of diplomatic or consular legations, of aliens in transit or residing illegally on Dominican territory.”2 The Court ruled that the category of children of “aliens in transit or residing illegally on Dominican territory” applied to children of undocumented persons living in the DR.


The decision was swiftly denounced internationally for rendering longtime residents “stateless.” (Use of this term is technically inaccurate, since children of Haitian parents retain their Haitian nationality.) Unquestionably, it posed a serious political as well as administrative problem for Dominican President Danilo Medina. Faced from all sides by condemnations of this human rights tragedy and demands to stop the impending deportations, but constitutionally prevented from appealing the verdict, Medina met with a group of those affected by the ruling to plan the government’s response.

In November 2013, he issued a presidential decree launching the National Regularization Plan (PRNE), which was executed over the course of 18 months and expired on June 17, 2015. Under the PRNE, anyone who was settled in the Dominican Republic before October 2011 was eligible to obtain a migratory visa confirming their legal status in the country, and eventually citizenship. The path to citizenship was elaborated in a new law, passed in May 2014. It first opened the door to DR citizenship for the 24,000 who had been inscribed in the civil registry and issued birth certificates before La Sentencia. The estimated remaining 186,000 born in the DR but without birth certificates could prove their birthplace by providing one of four acceptable documents, such as a signed statement from a midwife or witnesses, and then apply through the regularization plan, the PRNE.

Of the others affected, estimated up to 250,000, born in Haiti but living in the DR since before 2011, the plan listed the kinds of documents needed to prove their length of stay in the DR and “ties” to Dominican society. The possibilities included a deed to a house, a letter from a schoolteacher, a note from a boss or a notarized memo of good conduct from seven Dominican neighbours. The documents were to be presented at one of 31 designated offices. However, none of those offices are located in the bateys, the isolated company towns in which many of those affected live.

While there was no fee for applying for regularization to cover the estimated US$27 million the process is costing the DR, there was a cost incurred in gathering the documents. Moreover, those carrying out the process were not always sensitive to the situation of the applicants, many of whom spoke rudimentary Spanish. Rumours of abuses abounded and, no doubt, some eligible to apply did not do so out of fear or ignorance.

The international outcry

Expiry of the regularization period set off another round of international protest. An article by Rachel Nolan in the May 2015 issue of Harper’s was entitled “Displaced in the D.R.: A Country Strips 210,000 of Citizenship.” It was followed by a statement by José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, cited in a New York Times editorial under the headline “Stateless in the Dominican Republic” on June 12: “The Dominican Republic is denying tens of thousands of citizens their right to a nationality, and despite mixed messages, people are being detained and shoved over the border.” And on July 2, the New York Times Magazine featured “The Dominican Time Bomb” by Jonathan M. Katz, which told of plans to expel hundreds of thousands of residents of Haitian descent and buses to transport the deportees to processing centres at the border.

Racism was one of the themes of the reports, especially an August 23 article in USA Today by Yamiche Alcindor who noted that “many deportees and international human rights organizations believe that racism motivates the government’s immigration purge. They claim the immigration ruling is rooted in age-old racist notions of dark-skinned people as inferior to those with lighter complexions.” She was echoing the analysis of Jonathan Katz for whom the “expulsion … seemed like the logical culmination of decades of hate: a long-ticking time bomb finally poised to go off,” an expression of “the intensity of the hatred and violence long directed against Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent – and against anyone black enough to be confused for either.”

In the process, politicians also got into the act, notably New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who on June 17 publicly expressed concern “about the potential forced deportation tonight of hundreds of thousands of people from the Dominican Republic, including many children.” Others followed, including Denis Coderre, Mayor of Montreal, who, on June 23 sent out a statement voicing his “outrage over the illegal and immoral depossession (sic) of hundreds of thousands of people of Haitian origin” in the DR.

The full story shows that such characterizations are misleading. Multiple realities result from the fact that Haitian immigration developed over generations as an informal, extralegal process. And these multiple realities give rise to differing interpretations. The Haitian interpretation has, for understandable reasons, found its way into much current international coverage. Unfortunately, when an emotional issue becomes a matter of political correctness, the facts are the first victims.

In our view, in what is admittedly a complex and difficult situation, the Dominican government has, on the whole, acted appropriately. The U.S. Ambassador to the DR, James Brewster, has praised the DR’s efforts toward resolving the issue, accusing the international press of “being unfair to the DR” with its attacks. To be fair, we need to look at the context and go back to the beginnings of the strained relationship between these two peoples who share an island.

The immediate context was a change in relative economic conditions. Until the 1990s, most Haitian workers came to the DR for the sugar cane harvest and returned home once it finished. Afterwards, however, as conditions deteriorated in Haiti, many thousands of Haitians stayed. Meanwhile, more were coming. Especially after the earthquake in 2010, their numbers provoked Dominican fears of an “invasion” – rekindling painful memories of brutal invasions by Haiti in the 19th century. Still today there is no shortage of statements, typically on Internet blogs, evoking a conspiracy to unify the island through unchecked migration that will undermine the DR’s mulatto and Hispanic national identity, an identity incompatible with the Haitians’ African roots. Political leaders of the current generation do not express such ideas, but they were frequently voiced by Joaquín Balaguer, the authoritarian leader who dominated Dominican politics for 35 years after the death of dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961.

Distrust on the other side is typically associated with, and frequently reduced to, race – Haitians treated as virtual slaves on Dominican sugar plantations. Here memories are rekindled of the slaughter of 1937 when Trujillo ordered his army to kill Haitians who could not produce proof of their Dominican status. The killing of thousands went unreported in the media, all of which were government-controlled. Educated Dominicans, while not denying these atrocities, point out that typically Haitians were exploited with the cooperation of their own elites (the Haitian government accepted an indemnity of US$750,000 from Trujillo as compensation for the killings). But the historical roots of Dominican and Haitian reactions to recent events go back much further than that.

The weight of history

In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the island he eventually named Hispaniola. Forced labour and diseases introduced by the Spanish decimated the indigenous Taino population, which lacked natural immunity to such ailments. To replace that vanishing labour force, the Spanish brought in African slaves. People from France and other countries began to settle Tortuga Island just offshore and later in the northwest of Hispaniola itself. While Spanish Santo Domingo, based in southeast Hispaniola, developed primarily as a land of small livestock ranchers and tobacco and coffee farmers, French Saint-Domingue relied largely on slave-based sugar cane growing.

In 1697 the French presence in Saint-Domingue, covering the western three eighths of Hispaniola, was recognized by the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended a war in which Spain was part of an alliance fighting France’s King Louis XIV. A century later, at the Treaty of Basel in 1795, Spain ceded the remaining five eighths of the now highly profitable island to France. However, France was preoccupied with wars in Europe and slow to occupy the former Spanish territory. During this time, Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as political and military leader among the slaves and led a revolt against the French slavemasters. After defeating French landowners and the mulatto population in a civil war in 1800, Saint-Domingue ended slavery and in 1804 won its independence, though France extracted harsh reparations that limited the ability of the nascent nation, now called Haiti, to develop.

The Haitians sought to take control of the Spanish parts of the island with an 1805 invasion led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, self-proclaimed Emperor of Haiti. Atrocities against civilians, an outlet for the Haitians’ hatred for their former “blanc” and mulatto rulers, left a very bitter taste among the Spanish-speaking population that by now defined itself as “Dominican.” The Haitians withdrew when a French fleet appeared, but in 1822, after the Dominicans had proclaimed their independence from a remote and neglectful Spain, Haiti invaded again. The harsh 22-year-long military occupation from Port-au-Prince that followed was deeply resented for its brutality. It was not until 1844 that the Dominican Republic was able to gain independence, though it had to repel four Haitian invasions at the cost of great loss of life and property. Dominicans are still reminded of this today, and of the fact that the DR has never invaded Haiti.

Haiti, at the time, was the larger and more powerful of the two, with a population of just over 510,000. The census identified three distinct classes: 452,000 Africans at the bottom tier, a middle tier of 28,000 mulattoes and 32,000 white colonials at the top. Over time, this developed into a two-caste population, composed of an urban economically and politically empowered mulatto elite of roughly 5 per cent of the population and a largely rural black underclass. These have viewed each other with utmost suspicion and no middle class was able to develop.

In Spanish Santo Domingo, the population numbered some 125,000, composed of 40,000 whites, 25,000 mulattoes and 60,000 African slaves. The population imbalance placed Santo Domingo at an obvious economic and military disadvantage. In 1861, out of fear of further Haitian incursions, Santo Domingo negotiated a controversial annexation agreement with Spain, an ill-fated relationship that by 1862 had given way to a “War of Restoration” that lasted until 1865 when defeated Spanish troops abandoned the island. In 1866 the Dominican Republic attained its “second independence.”

At the end of the 19th century international demand led to a boom in the Caribbean sugar industry. The countries best placed to take advantage of it were Cuba and the Dominican Republic, with large areas of fertile soil and abundant rainfall. In the DR, labour was acquired from abroad, first from the English-speaking eastern Caribbean islands, but soon mainly from Haiti. The Dominican census figures showed a total of 28,000 Haitians in 1920, which climbed to 53,000 by 1935. A major factor was the role of the United States, which occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and the DR from 1916 to 1924. The labour and other requirements of American owners of sugar plantations in both places were well served by the two military administrations.

With the end of the occupations, the two countries’ development paths diverged. Haiti’s economic power waned as a result of the loss of sugar markets to competitors and relentless unchecked deforestation to make vegetable charcoal for cooking fuel, an activity that endures to this day and has brought the country’s current forest cover to a meagre 2 per cent. In contrast, the DR made some progress. For all its brutality, the Trujillo dictatorship (1930–1961) in the DR achieved a degree of development through education, public works, road construction and public health. This was not matched in Haiti, especially under the dictatorships of François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) from 1957 to 1971 and, even more so, his son Jean-Claude (”Baby Doc”) from 1971 to 1986.

The new Haitian immigrants

The sugar plantations were a state within a state. Law and order, housing, roads, transport, essential services and shops were provided by the company. A number of the companies were owned by the state – i.e. Trujillo – and a larger number for many years by American multinationals. In the bateys the status of the population was defined by the sugar companies. The municipality had no mandate for the population on the sugar estates. If you were lucky, the batey was a place where you could get help from local NGOs and church and philanthropic groups. Even when the international price of sugar, which fluctuated wildly, was high, conditions of the workers were worse than those of Dominicans in comparable industries.

While the traditional batey can still be found in certain areas of the country, significant change was caused by the collapse of the state-owned sugar industry in the late 1980s. The industry was hurt by the United States’s decision to reduce its sugar import quota for the Dominican Republic in order to protect its own farmers, along with the DR’s failure to invest in modernizing the plantations even when the industry was booming. In the 1970s average annual production was over one million tons, around 60 per cent of which was exported to the United States. By 1991 it was down to 340,000 tons.

Beginning in the 1980s, a wave of migrant labourers left the plantations to find jobs elsewhere in agriculture, in the construction industry and in the informal sector of the economy of the cities. During this time, economic dependence on sugar was replaced by the growth of tourism, foreign exchange earnings from remittances from Dominicans living abroad and the establishment of assembly factories in free trade zones. Agricultural production other than sugar also increased, in modernized rice and poultry cultivation and in coffee, cocoa and tobacco plantations protected by government subsidies and protective tariffs.

While migration mostly has economic causes, flight from Haiti for political reasons has also been significant at times. From 1991 to 1994, following the military coup that overthrew the newly elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, there was a mass exodus of up to 100,000 Haitians who escaped by boat or crossed the border into the DR. In the years that followed, the situation improved and the Haitians crossing the border came mainly to work in agriculture or construction, many returning at the end of the season. After 2003, conditions in Haiti deteriorated while those in the DR improved markedly: more Haitians came and more stayed, especially after the terrible earthquake early in 2010.

Although the migrants are still predominantly young men, women are also now migrating in significant numbers. Until recently, the vast majority of this migrant labour was “informal” – that is, it was uncontrolled in the process of exiting from Haiti, crossing the poorly policed border without visa or permit and accessing unregulated work in the DR. Powerful Dominican interests, like the sugar plantations of an earlier day, depend on a supply of relatively cheap and compliant labour. Cutting off the supply of labourers from Haiti would bankrupt part of the agricultural sector and create a crisis in the construction industry. Hence, until the Constitutional Court acted, Dominican authorities were ambivalent about introducing effective mechanisms to regulate migration. Unloved as they were, the Haitians were still needed.

Why Haitians increasingly wanted to go to in the DR is evident. While in the DR real annual GDP per capita, measured in 2005 U.S. dollars, increased from $1,085 in 1960 to $5,101 in 2014, that of Haiti actually decreased, from $1,070 to $497, during that same period. In other words, starting in roughly the same place 55 years ago, today the per capita GDP of the DR is more than 10 times that of Haiti.

After the earthquake

On January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a strong earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, followed by two aftershocks of 5.9 and 5.0 respectively, which destroyed large parts of its capital, Port-au-Prince, as well as other cities. Up to 250,000 perished. Most available infrastructure, including the international airport, hospitals and basic government services, collapsed, and the presidential palace crumbled. The DR acted immediately, sending shelters, field kitchens, drinking water, medical and rescue teams, food shipments, heavy equipment to remove debris and other necessities. Not a small number of the injured, including many high government officials, were flown to the DR for medical care.

Following this disaster, a massive wave of refugees crossed the border into the DR. Moreover, a severe cholera outbreak traced to Nepali UN soldiers occurred in Haiti, spilling over to the DR. The DR found itself having to provide medical care and many other basic services, services that are not available in Haiti even during normal times. In 2013 the University Hospital José María Cabral y Baez in Santiago, the DR’s second biggest city, offered services to 25,022 foreigners, of whom 24,507 were Haitian nationals. These represented approximately 25 per cent of the total patients, and 30 per cent of the total income of the hospital was spent on them, exhausting resources intended to care for the Dominican population. (The hospital receives only half of the required US$670,000 from the Dominican government.)

The DR contributes to the education of Haitians by charging the more than 12,000 Haitian students in Dominican universities the same fee as Dominicans, unlike other foreign students who pay a hefty premium. And 44,000 children of Haitians study in Dominican public schools.

Regularization takes shape

Of the estimated up to 250,000 who were born in Haiti but were living the DR since before 2011, those who submitted Haitian passports or the equivalent have received ID papers, though they often disappointingly found that they needed to be renewed in one or two years. Dominican authorities are very critical of Haiti’s civil registry (responsible for providing legal ID documents) for being unable to provide many of them with needed basic information and, initially, demanding a substantial fee from those who did receive copies of birth certificates. (Haiti has refused to recognize as Haitians those unable to register under the PRNE, accusing the DR of “mass deportations and creating a humanitarian crisis.” As noted above, the campaign bore fruit.)

Of those of Haitian origin with papers indicating they were born in the DR, only a minority of the estimated 55,000 eligible – including Juliana Dequis Pierre – have received Dominican ID papers. Obstacles include not finding names on the list, not having received requested documents and not being able to register their children. Overall, the process has been unjustifiably slow, though the government has assured them that they are not subject to possible deportation.

Including those claiming to be longtime Dominican residents but lacking papers showing where they were born, the total goes up to an estimated 435,000. By the June deadline, a total of 288,466 people had applied for regularization, and, in early September the government announced that 80 per cent of them, or more than 230,000, had been successful. By late September, more than 105,000 had received ID cards attesting to their regularized status. Still, there are certainly many eligible who did not apply under the plan out of distrust, lack of information and misinformation. Critics note the slowness to set up local units for receiving the applications, especially in border areas, creating additional difficulties for people living in provinces without local units.


By early August roughly 66,000 had returned to Haiti, with the right to return and regularize their status as long as they could produce the required documents and a visa. There have been conflicting reports about their status. The U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Pamela Ann White, accompanied by her Canadian counterpart Paula Caldwell St. Onge, visited the border to check on those charges and told the press that “there have been no mass deportations and no humanitarian crisis exists here.” She noted that the Dominican government had instituted a hold on deportations for 45 days following the PNRE deadline on June 17, so that those undocumented aliens without IDs had extra time to obtain them.

The Dominican government states that it is keeping Haitian authorities apprised of the identity of returnees, as well as the places and dates when its citizens are being repatriated. Haiti’s own consul in the DR border town of Dajabon, Noil Luken, told the media that he had not witnessed any violations of human rights after initial deportations began in mid-August 2015 following expiry of the 45-day grace period. The Dominican Army has strengthened security at the border with new recruits, noting that they have undergone a three-month course on how to combine courtesy with military discipline to respect human rights in immigration detentions.

Of course, promises are easy to make, and those affected are justifiably sceptical on the basis of past experience. In areas where large groups of Haitians are concentrated, there are reports of violent incidents and threats of intimidation by Dominicans in and out of uniform, reflecting the strain that the massive Haitian presence has placed on these communities and their institutions. Hence we should not be surprised that there is no shortage of reported cases of individuals treated unjustly. On many occasions, neighbourhood committees and public notaries asked for excessive fees, and some employers have refused to cooperate. There are numerous complaints that local officials have demanded additional documents not required by law, such as mothers’ birth certificates and extra declarations by midwives. In some cases misinformed hospitals refused or were unable to hand over the certificates of live birth. As a result some individuals entitled to stay in the DR were deported by overzealous officials.

An emotionally charged issue

In sum, what has been happening does not lead to the concludsion that institutionalized racism and xenophobia are the driving forces. Despite the real problems in the application of its measures, the overall approach taken by the highly popular Dominican government has been reasonable under the circumstances. Even critics of Dominican policy like Bridget Wooding of the Caribbean Migrants Observatory, OBMICA, acknowledge that the Dominican government has been making efforts to harmonize policies and practices throughout the system. Wooding sees this as a response to criticism from outside the country and from civil society organizations in the DR. Whatever the motivation, no one looking objectively, and from an international context, can simply dismiss Dominican efforts to rectify the situation.

Another important factor in the equation is the role of the Haitian authorities. As we write, Haiti has imposed a partial ban on imports of DR products into Haiti in advance of the Haitian election slated for October 25. Clearly the ban is politically inspired, since the main economic costs will be borne by Haitian consumers. And this is not the first or last of such tensions. Still, overall, there has been an improvement in relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, allowing for a certain level of cooperation on cross-border matters that has been sustained even during a protracted period of political crisis in Haiti. The weight of history, it appears, has been ever so slowly lightening.

Before casting stones, those outside Hispaniola would do well to examine how their own country has welcomed, or would have welcomed, the many thousands of poorly educated, poor, black migrants who continue to seek a better life than that offered by the chaotic, effectively failed state that is Haiti. It is easy to criticize the DR, but few compare what they are criticizing with the treatment by their own countries of would-be migrants from Haiti. American critics like Mayor de Blasio might reflect on how their country in effect made the situation worse, especially during the dictatorship that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, turning boats carrying thousands of Haitian refugees back to Hispaniola. Haitians constitute a substantial number of the annual average of 400,000 illegal aliens deported by the United States in recent years. And unlike the United States or other countries critical of the Dominican Republic, the DR is still a developing country. According to the IMF World Economic Outlook Database of 2013, the DR ranked 91st in GDP per capita among the world’s 184 countries.

Constructive criticism is welcome, but politically correct denunciations only make a difficult situation worse. We hope that this article will help stimulate more informed discussion of this admittedly complex, emotionally charged issue.


1 Case TC 168-13.

2 Chapter V, Art. 18.

Henry Milner is a political scientist and co-publisher of Inroads. With Frances Boylston, he directs the Meeting Place, an international centre in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.

Rafael G. Belliard was born, raised and educated in the Dominican Republic. He is a retired medical doctor who has resided in the United States for 54 years and visits the Dominican Republic for several months every year. He holds dual Dominican and American citizenship.

Jeffrey Oberman is a former Canadian who has lived full-time in the Dominican Republic for more than nine years. He is the owner of a water distribution business, and is significantly involved in the Meeting Place.