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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Wilver Cuevas Betances was born in the Dominican Republic and never left until he ran into some soldiers at a bus station in Santo Domingo who demanded his passport.
"I don't have a passport. I'm Dominican," the 29-year-old recalls telling the soldiers. Ignoring his pleas, his perfect Spanish, and the Dominican identification card showing his birthplace, they deported him the following day across the border to Haiti.
Four days later, after a night on a park bench in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, he sat in wrinkled clothes in the office of a migrant assistance group, struggling to make himself understood in the unfamiliar language of Creole, the French-based language spoken in Haiti.
"I have nothing here," he said. "I don't know anyone."
Migrant advocates are bracing for more abrupt deportations to impoverished Haiti as a result of a recent Dominican court ruling that narrows the definition of citizenship. So far, there have not been mass deportations, but there are growing accounts of people being summarily kicked out of the country, in some cases apparently based solely on the color of their skin.
"Blacks are hardly going out because they're picking up a lot of dark-skinned people," Cuevas said in an interview Thursday at the office of the Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees, a nongovernmental organization.
In September, the Dominican Constitutional Court ruled that being born in the country does not automatically grant citizenship, and it directed officials to purge voter rolls of non-citizens, including people born to non-legal residents going back to 1929. Advocates say 200,000 people could be stripped of citizenship, along with the documents they need to work or attend school, although the government says an initial count came to about 24,000.
The ruling, based on a new 2010 constitution, is a reflection of deep hostility in the Dominican Republic to the vast number of Haitians who have come to live in their country, many brought in to work in the sugar industry and their descendants.
"Deportations have been fairly steady since 2007. Using the court ruling as a justification is new," said Tobias Metzner, a Haiti-based counter-trafficking program manager for the International Organization for Migration. "The legal context has changed."
Cesar Pina Toribio, a legal adviser to Dominican President Danilo Medina, made a lengthy defense of the government position to the Organization of American States last month, arguing that the country seeks only to gain control over its citizenship rolls and will develop a path to permanent legal residency.
But no details have been provided, and the law is already having consequences.
There are accounts of people who have been reported to immigration authorities and deported after squabbling with their neighbors or being abruptly thrown out of the country at a time when their employers are having financial difficulties, Metzner said. Migrants say they have paid bribes to soldiers to keep from being detained, or were held when they couldn't come up with enough cash, said Colette Lespinasse, director of the Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees, known by its French acronym as GARR.
And there are widespread reports that authorities are deporting or seizing the residency documents of people with darker skin or French names that may signal Haitian ancestry.
People like 23-year-old Dilsia Teresa Jean, who has lived her whole life in a town northwest of Santo Domingo, fear venturing into the capital. "I'm afraid they are going to arrest me," she said. "The bus drivers give us strange looks."
Soldiers appear to have misinterpreted the law when they detained Cuevas. A bricklayer by trade, he says his only connection to neighboring Haiti is that a dead grandfather was Haitian. Even under the September court ruling, people with at least one legal-resident parent would still be Dominican citizens, says Pina, the Dominican president's legal adviser. The case underscores what advocates say is a complicated, retroactive ruling that is having many unintended consequences.
Being sent to Haiti, meanwhile, is to be essentially cast adrift. The country has recovered substantially from the devastating January 2010 earthquake, but it has a barely functioning economy and jobs are scarce. The World Bank says nearly 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day.
In Jimani, an arid and somewhat seedy Dominican border town that swirls with chalky dust, there are hundreds of Haitians, many living in shacks of plywood and corrugated tin with small gardens fenced off by dried stalks of sugar cane. Soldiers seem to largely ignore the many non-legal residents in the border zone, giving it the feel of a no-man's land.
Among the Haitians in Jimani is Marcial Luis, who says he was deported from the Dominican Republic in September when he went to a government office in Santo Domingo to help a friend fill out some paperwork and the clerk demanded his identity card and then confiscated it. Luis, who has spent half his life in the Dominican Republic, where he has a wife and five grown children, was quickly deported to Haiti. He made his way to the border region, hoping to return to Santo Domingo.
"I'm a 63-year-old with man nothing, without a place to live," he said, his voice breaking with emotion.
Migrant advocates say people who get sent to Haiti nearly always turn around and try to go back. Lespinasse, director of GARR, said her organization attempts to find relatives in Haiti to take them in but often they have been gone too long to have any connection to the country.
Their plight is getting noticed. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have called attention to the situation as has Lespinasse's organization, which gets backing from the American Jewish World Service. The Caribbean Community has urged the Dominican Republic not to disenfranchise migrants and called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.
Lespinasse and others are working one case at a time. With Cuevas, her group will petition the government to allow him to return, but notes there are many like him and likely more to come.
"They have everything there," she said of the Dominican Republic. "They have their relatives. They have their money. They have their work."
Associated Press writer Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.
Ben Fox on Twitter: https://twitter.com/benfoxatap