A young Dominican shoe shiner makes a gray-haired man’s oxfords glow in the late afternoon sun. They both listen intently to the voice of a woman coming from a small radio propped up on a rusty stool: “Take the Haitians in to YOUR countries then,” shouts the famous broadcaster, “Let them go to the United States, or Canada, or France!” She's yelling about the topic on everyone's lips these days: the mass deportation of Haitians from the Dominican Republic that seems to be right around the corner.
Yubelki Pierre had just left, walking quickly with her nerves poorly hidden behind a wan smile. She wasn’t used to being so far from her house, especially now, when the very real threat of deportation loomed over the entire city.
Yubelki was born August 20, 1986 in Enriquillo, a small coastal village in the southeastern province of Barahona. She’s the oldest of nine siblings whom, though born and raised in the Dominican Republic, have never had proper government identification.
Yubelki’s story is one of exclusion. Her parents, who left Haiti for jobs working the land in the Dominican Republic, lived in abject poverty on a hillside. She was abandoned early in her life when her father left her mother. With no possible way of sustaining her family, her mother gave Yubelki to another woman when she was just six-years-old. “I remember my mother telling me, ‘Take a bath because they’re coming to get you.’ I didn’t say anything because I felt like I had to obey my mother. She only wanted the best for me.” Yubelki went three long years without seeing her mother and they never lived together again.
In the Dominican Republic, a country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, the exclusion that Yubelki felt is part of the much larger history of that joins the two nations. Though relations have been marked by long periods of understanding and fraternity, there is also a history of oppression and violence among Haitians and Dominicans. The DR has some of the highest rates of poverty in the region, but its situation is still much better than Haiti’s. Political stability, economic growth, and a favorable climate for investment and economic transformation have made the former an attractive option for lots of Haitian citizens looking to improve their circumstances. The same Haitians who sacrificed their blood and sweat for the booming sugar industry in the 20th century are now sustaining the construction, agriculture, and even domestic service industries in the DR, trading hard work for shamefully low wages.
The Haitian population in the Dominican Republic, described by conservatives and powerful media figures as “massive” and a “peaceful invasion,” has been affected by the lack of documentation provided for immigrants. Red tape and bureaucracy, as well as the high cost of management for the Dominican Republic and the inability for the Haitian state itself to document their own nationals have all contributed to the problem. And the children have paid the price.
Yubelki is one of those children. Her adopted mother tried to formally declare Yubelki as a Dominican citizen before she died so that she could get documented, but it turned out to be impossible. “We had to gather papers from here and from there and we didn’t have any money. Before it wasn’t as big of a problem as it is now and we didn’t think it was that important.” For decades, it was common practice for Dominican citizens close to the undocumented Haitian families to declare the children as their own. It was also normal that thousands of people spent their entire lives without proper identification.
“When I was little I only got to the third grade. I couldn’t continue my studies because of my lack of papers.” She spent twelve years with her adopted mother and foster sister at home, "doing jobs, running errands, and going to church.” She waited until 2005 to go back to school and had to count on the secret solidarity of those who allowed her to continue her studies in spite of her lack of documentation. Now she’s on the verge of graduation, but she won’t be able to go to college without an identity card. Yubelki’s case is special. The majority of those lacking documentation cannot finish school, get dignified jobs, or qualify for social security.
“My life began to change when I met Elena, a young woman who lived here and who always asked me to go with her to the Reconocido meetings.” Reconocido is a social movement started by Dominicans of Haitian descent who are fighting to get the Dominican state to recognize the national identity of those who have been born in the country since 2010.
Yubelki’s decision to fight for her right to a nationally recognized identity coincided with a conflict that began in the Dominican Republic back in 2013. The passage of “la Sentencia 168” eradicated nationality for all those born to parents who migrated illegally to the country from 1929 to 2010. This law then birthed the “Plan de Regularización de Extranjeros” and obligated President Danilo Medina to promote a legal alternative for those affected by la Sentencia. Known as la ley 169, there is now an option for those Dominicans like Yubelki to obtain proper identification documents.
But she says when she arrived at the office to get her new identification she found a very long line filled with Haitians speaking creole. “They all thought I was a worker too because I kept my mouth shut, but the truth was I didn't understand a word they were saying.” Officials kicked her off line multiple times, telling her that her paperwork wasn’t complete and she had to return four times before she was finally able to complete the process. While waiting in line, she witnessed the verbal and physical abuse by police and military personnel of the Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. “They spoke to all of us like we were animals.”
A few local nonprofits protested, stating that the small amount of staff and lack of space assigned for the large number of requests, as well as difficulty of the requirements asked of this very poor population made the process basically impossible. According to estimates by the Ministry of the Interior 288,466 foreigners were able to register with the plan to apply for legal residence, yet only 8,755 people applied with the hope of obtaining a Dominican identification. It’s estimated that there are over 100,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent like Yubelki in the country.
This last group will have to wait for approval of their applications and then wait two years to opt for Dominican nationality, even if they were born in the country before 2010. For these reasons, Yubelki tries to restrict her travel as much as possible. “I don’t have documents yet, and I don’t think that the immigration police will respect the receipts I have with me. If they want to rip up your paperwork in your face, they will do it. They are the rock and we are the eggs: If one hits the other, guess which will break first?”
As she walks briskly down the street, the voice continues to boom from the radio. The broadcaster insists that there is an evil plan to unify the Dominican Republic and Haiti and that’s why they should build a big wall along the border after they have deported all the Haitians. Yubelki didn’t hear that part though; she was too busy trying to enjoy her precious free moments in between the four jobs she works, for which she is paid just $200 U.S. a month.
“I know my parents are Haitian, but I am and I feel Dominican. When I was little, I felt bad when they called me Haitian because my friends at school would always poke fun,” Yubelki says. “Now as an adult, I know I shouldn’t be ashamed just because my parents are from there.”