SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Cresnel Ceus no longer lives in the shadows. For the first time in 15 years, the Haitian migrant can move about this country without fear of being detained at any moment. He can get a formal job and perform such routine acts as opening his own bank account and getting his own phone.
Perhaps most important to Ceus, he can pack up his fruit stall and take his two children across the border to his native Haiti for the first time in their lives without the fear that he won't be allowed to return to the Dominican Republic.
"My kids are going to get to know Haiti," the broad-shouldered 37-year-old said as he looked forward to a Christmas holidays journey to his hometown of St. Marc, a town on the Caribbean just north of Haiti's capital.
All this is possible because Ceus is one of about 184,000 people, mostly of Haitian descent, who were able to secure legal Dominican residency papers this year under an initiative that has been fraught with controversy and heartache.
For the lucky ones who managed to meet the criteria for residency, and to prove it in a place where documentation is a challenge, life has become easier.
Ceus, whose stall is on a corner near the home of Dominican President Danilo Medina, there is no more fear that he could be taken into custody and deported at any moment or that he will suddenly lose his job as he has before.
"Everything is good now," he said, brandishing his new migrant card.
A much larger group, estimated at more than 300,000, faces a more uncertain future. These are people who either didn't meet criteria to gain formal residency or couldn't get the necessary paperwork such as a Haitian birth certificate or documents proving they had been in the Dominican Republic since before October 2011.
Chiara Ligouri, a researcher with Amnesty International, said the organization is concerned about the fate of those born in this nation of about 10 million people but lack residency.
"These people are still in an undocumented situation; they do not have any type of nationality," Ligouri said.
Among those now in danger of deportation is Martina Quezada. She was born in Haiti in 1975 but has lived in the Dominican Republic with her family since she was a child.
Quezada couldn't get the papers she needed for herself from the Haitian government or the Dominican documents that the government required for four of her five children. Only one child, who was enrolled by a Dominican father, is a citizen in the country where all were born.
"I missed out," she said with resignation "That's how the enrollment went."
The sharply uneven situation for non-citizens stems from a 2013 ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court in a decades-long dispute over who is entitled to citizenship. The court said people born to non-citizens were not automatically entitled to citizenship. The decision was extended back to 1929, retroactively stripping people of the right they believed they had since birth.
The ruling prompted international outrage. Human rights advocates said the decision left hundreds of thousands of people effectively stateless since many had never been to their supposed homeland across the border in Haiti.
As a compromise, the Dominican government offered to recognize the nationality of those who already had a Dominican birth certificate. It also launched a program to provide legal residency to foreigners who could prove they had been living in the country since before October 2011.
The government said about 288,000 people applied for residency, waiting in long lines at offices across the country. Of those, 239,000 submitted sufficient documents. The government issued renewable permits to 184,000 people such as Ceus and says an additional 55,000 will receive them in the coming weeks.
"You can see the success of the plan in the number of people who benefited from it," Deputy Interior Minister Washington Gonzalez said. "Our interest is that everyone complies with the requirements and picks up their permits as soon as possible."
There have been repeated warnings that anyone without legal residency faces deportation. An estimated 70,000 have left the Dominican Republic on their own, with an estimated 3,000 staying in ramshackle encampments just over the Haitian side of the border. At least 5,000 have been deported but so far there have been no mass roundups.
The system will soon be tested. Every January, the Dominican Republic deploys extra troops at the border to stop migrants as they return from Christmas holidays.
Ceus will be among them, after seeing his parents for the first time since 2007. This time, he will have his 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son with him, and he is almost looking forward to encountering migration officials.
"It took a lot of effort but now I have my papers," he said.
Quezada, meanwhile, will be dodging immigration patrols in her poor neighborhood of Los Alcarrizos, something she feels confident she will be able to pull off.
"After so many years here, I have learned a lot," she said.