On Monday, Yayine Mesilus was snatched off the streets of her small village in the Dominican Republic and taken back to Haiti, from where she had migrated eight years ago with her little brother to look for work.
That, by the government’s own account, was not supposed to have happened. Ms. Mesilus, 29, and other migrant workers in her situation were supposed to have until Wednesday night to register with the Dominican authorities before being deported.
Yet for the last several months, under so-called Operation Shield, migrant workers have been routinely seized and expelled. Though this particular operation is meant to single out only those illegal migrants who have turned up since late 2011, the process is never clean, as seen in the case of Ms. Mesilus.
Haitian migrant workers demonstrated in front of the Haitian Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, this month.Haitian Workers Facing Deportation by Dominican NeighborsJUNE 16, 2015
Ms. Mesilus, who was forced to leave behind her brother, Clever, who is now 18, stands as an example of what many fear will come to pass starting Thursday, when a much larger, broad-scale deportation of Haitian migrant workers is set to begin. As that sweep unfolds, those who have complied with the law, even those born on Dominican soil, may be arbitrarily tossed out as well.
Consider: Ms. Mesilus herself had started the registration process, which should have protected her from deportation for another 45 days.
“I was thrown back here because I was not carrying my document to prove I was already trying to register,” she said in a telephone interview from Fond Parisien, Haiti. “They didn’t even give me the chance to explain what was happening,”
The impending deportations stem from a law passed last year that requires all foreign-born workers to register with the government within a year or face deportation. The government has said it wants merely to get a grip on its migrant work force, and has promised to open a path to naturalization for those who register.
But many here see the efforts as an extension of efforts to rid the country of a chunk of its Haitian population; Haitians account for about 85 percent of all migrant workers in the country. The law, which followed a 2013 court ruling to strip the citizenship of children born in the Dominican Republic to foreign parents, was seen by many in the human rights community as thinly veiled discrimination against the Dominicans’ darker-skinned neighbors.
Dominican Republic officials bristle at such criticism, claiming that allowing illegal immigrants a path to naturalization is more generous than the policies of many countries, including the United States. Besides, many Dominicans feel as if their country is under siege by migrants and want to bring the flow of entrants under control.
And yet the specter of mass deportations, especially as it involves purging an entire group with whom there has long been racial tensions, has cast the Dominican Republic into a harsh light internationally. In an attempt to deflect that negative attention, the government says that nearly 250,000 people have started the registration process.
Yet that is less than half of the estimated foreign-born population living in the country, according to a 2012 report, leaving hundreds of thousands at risk.
Some of those people, like Eduardo Willow, 27, have tried to register but found the process onerous — either too confusing, too demanding or too far away from their homes.
Mr. Willow, a construction worker, says he was stopped on his way to register by soldiers who would not let him or the migrant workers he was traveling with proceed. “I’ve lived here 20 years,” he said.
Left unmentioned is the fate of those born to foreign migrants. Only those with proper paperwork, and whose births were registered formally, will be entitled to citizenship.
The remainder of the population, born in the country but without documentation, is supposed to register as foreigners and then, in theory, be granted citizenship. Yet their fate remains unclear. Rights groups fear that this subset could be sent back with the others to Haiti, a country that many have never even seen.
“All the arbitrary deportations of the past six months, people getting stopped in the streets of towns and cities just for their skin color, raises a great deal of uncertainty and fear,” said Pedro Cano Olivares, a coordinator for the Jesuit Service in Jimani.
In a statement, the State Department expressed concern over “the large numbers of eligible individuals who have yet to access the regularization and naturalization processes and have their claims adjudicated.”
It is unclear, given international pressure, whether the Dominican Republic will go ahead with the mass deportations. Yet if the story of Ms. Mesilus and others is any indication, indiscriminate expulsions seem likely.
Ms. Mesilus worked for more than eight years in Jimani, most recently at a fast-food restaurant. Clever worked at a grocer’s.
This week, Ms. Mesilus was detained on the street by a group of soldiers. She said she told them that she was in the process of registering.
That night she was sent back to Haiti, where she traveled to her home in Fond Parisien.
Her brother, who has no paperwork, fears that he, too, will soon be deported. He tried to register this month, but was overwhelmed by the byzantine process.
“It was just too much, too difficult,” Mr. Mesilus said from the home he shared with his sister. “I am afraid I will be deported like my sister was because I have no documents with me.”
As for Ms. Mesilus, she has already decided her next step: crossing the border back into the Dominican Republic.
“I will rejoin my brother,” she said.