- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

JIMANI, Dominican Republic | The Dominican Republic has deported thousands of illegal immigrants in recent weeks, sowing fear among Haitians living in the country and prompting accusations its government is using a cholera outbreak as a pretext for a crackdown.

In the largest campaign in years to target Haitians living illegally in the Dominican Republic, soldiers and immigration agents have been setting up checkpoints and conducting neighborhood sweeps, detaining anyone without papers and booting them from the country.

Erickner Auguesten, a 36-year-old father of three who has been in the Dominican Republic illegally since 1991, said agents stopped him as he exited a hospital where his pregnant wife was getting a checkup.

“When we left to get some food, the police pulled up and told me to get into the truck,” he told the Associated Press in the border town of Jimani. He said a friend who works for the border patrol helped him sneak back in.

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians live at least part time in the Dominican Republic, enduring frequent discrimination and the constant fear of being deported. A cholera epidemic in Haiti that has killed at least 4,000 people and sickened 200,000 has made matters worse.

A Haitian boy tries to cross into the Dominican Republic at the border near Jimani on Jan. 29. (Associated Press)
A Haitian boy tries to cross into the Dominican Republic at the ... more >

Dominican officials eased border controls and halted deportations for humanitarian reasons after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake near Port-au-Prince that killed an estimated 316,000 people and devastated the already impoverished nation. But right at the one-year anniversary of the quake, the deportations resumed — with greater enforcement than has been seen since 2005.

More than 3,000 people have been handcuffed and sent across the border in the past four weeks, including some legal residents who were simply caught without their documents, according to migrants and advocates.

“They grab them from the streets,” said Gustavo Toribio of Border Solidarity, an organization that provides assistance to migrant workers. “They don’t care if they have children, if they have property. They only ask them for their documents.”

The government denies that any legal residents have been deported. Dominican immigration chief Sigfrido Pared defended the deportations, saying his country cannot be an escape valve for Haitians fleeing extreme poverty and political instability.

The United Nations estimated before the earthquake that some 600,000 Haitians were living illegally in the Dominican Republic, which has a total population of nearly 10 million. Dominican authorities say that number has since grown to 1 million, most of them there illegally.

“It is very easy for some countries or some organizations to criticize the situation in the Dominican Republic,” Mr. Pared said. “No [other] country in the world has a border with Haiti. No country in the world has a Haitian problem like the Dominican Republic has.”

Dominican officials say the immigration crackdown is necessary to prevent the spread of cholera from Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

So far there have been only about 300 known cholera cases in the Dominican Republic — with one fatality, a Haitian migrant thought to have contracted the disease back home. Even in Haiti, the disease has slowed in recent weeks amid a nationwide treatment and education campaign.

However, infectious-disease specialists warn that cholera could still rebound in Haiti, and the Dominican Health Ministry says it can’t afford to take any chances

“The ministry is in charge of maintaining epidemiological vigilance and health control along the border, as in the whole country,” spokesman Luis Garcia said.

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