Dominican-Haitian Activist Hopes U.S. Award Will Help Fight Discrimination

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Sonia Pierre was just 13 when she was arrested and threatened with deportation for leading her fellow residents of Haitian descent in a march for sugar cane-cutters' rights.

In the three decades since, that lanky teenager has grown into a 6-foot-tall champion of a beleaguered minority in this Caribbean nation. Her tireless work securing citizenship and education for Dominican-born ethnic Haitians has made her the target of threats here, but has earned her recognition from overseas as a fierce defender of human rights.

On Friday, Pierre was to receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award at a ceremony in Washington, a prize of $30,000 and a promise from the center founded in honor of the late senator to help her cause.

"We hope to keep the international pressure on," said Monika Kalra Varma, acting director of the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights.

An estimated 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, many in isolated village slums that dot the countryside. Most born here are descendants of Haitians who crossed the border fleeing violence or seeking economic opportunity.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola. While Haiti has been plagued by poverty, violence and political instability, its eastern neighbor, with a population of 9 million, grew out of its own early struggles to be seen as a comparative land of opportunity — even as many Haitian migrants are exploited as cheap labor.

Haitians face deep-seated challenges integrating into Dominican society. Dominican independence is measured not from Spain's departure in 1864 but from the end of a Haitian occupation two decades earlier. The Dominican Republic emphasizes European ties over its African ancestry, distinguishing itself from its neighbor to the west with a darker-skinned, poorer population.

In 1976 when Pierre led her fellow Haitian-Dominican neighbors in a march to demand rights for those who cut sugar cane, police arrested her. She was jailed for a day and threatened with deportation to Haiti, where her mother was born.

"I was crying because I didn't know anyone in Haiti," Pierre recalled.

At 43, the towering Pierre's high cheekbones and weary eyes have become a public face of her people. As head of the Dominican-Haitian Women's Movement, she has garnered acclaim from abroad, including an award from Amnesty International in 2003.

But her advocacy also has made her and her family targets. She was chased out of her Santo Domingo office by a man waving a pistol and punched at a stop light by a man who said only, "I know who you are." Her children — 16-year-old twins and two older children — have been repeatedly threatened, she said.

Pierre insists she is trying to help her people, not malign the Dominican Republic. "I am not a critic of my country — and this is my country," she said. "I am a critic of my government."

In Pierre's mountain-ringed hometown of Batey Lecheria, an hour's drive north of the capital, her efforts have helped secure government aid, including the installation of running water and electricity. Citrus trees have replaced the state-owned sugar fields where she mobilized residents to demand better pay and housing.

But Pierre, who now lives in Santo Domingo, says about half the 76 families in Batey Lecheria lack Dominican citizenship, despite a constitutional provision granting full legal status to anyone born in the country.

Those without papers can't attend school or take jobs in the free-trade zones that pay better than the $3 a day earned by workers picking fruit.

Last year, Pierre helped shepherd a landmark case through the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which demanded that the Dominican government enforce the constitutional provision on citizenship equally.

A common practice in the Dominican Republic, Pierre has said, is for the government to label Haitians as workers in transit, which keeps their citizenship status in limbo.

But as the Inter-American court does not have authority to alter laws or enforce its decisions in the Dominican Republic, changes have not been implemented and even the plaintiffs are yet to receive their full court-ordered compensation.

Dominican officials who oversee Haitian affairs declined to comment on the court's decision or answer questions about its implementation.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial has assigned an attorney to work with Pierre on ensuring the ruling is carried out and is working to draw attention to her cause. She is the 23rd recipient of the award honoring the former senator, U.S. attorney general and presidential candidate.