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.
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 three 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," 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 only been about 300 known cholera cases in the Dominican Republic — with one fatality, a Haitian migrant believed 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.
Many Dominicans support the deportations, saying they are fearful of contracting the disease.
"It's a threat to our country," said Secondino Matos, a 50-year-old truck driver. "They (Haitians) are our brothers — but not the illegal ones. This country is drowning in them already."
Spread by waterborne bacteria, cholera causes rapid dehydration but is treatable if caught soon enough. The key to controlling it is early treatment and making sure people have access to clean water and sanitation.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, a cholera expert with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, praised the Dominican Republic for reporting its first cases so quickly and launching strong public education efforts.
He declined to comment specifically on the deportations, but said there's little evidence that border controls, in general, can effectively contain the spread.
"It's a little hard to point to success in that," Tauxe said.
Some activists allege that cholera is just an excuse, and the mass deportations are actually driven by racism and xenophobia.
Dominican-Haitian Women Movement director Sonia Pierre noted that many road checkpoints are in areas that see only domestic traffic, and thus are unlikely to catch immigrants bringing the disease in from Haiti.
Many of the deportees have lived for many years in the Dominican Republic, and sending them back to Haiti increases their risk of exposure to the disease, she added. And when they inevitably try to return to lives and jobs, migrants could bring cholera back with them.
"If they want to confront cholera, this isn't the way to do it," Pierre said.
Pared, the immigration chief, denied that officials are repatriating migrants who have been in the country for a long time.
The Foreign Ministry and Migration Office said the operation is focused on Haitians who are coming into the country illegally, but there are tens of thousands in the country with no papers so it's often not possible to know who is a recent arrival and who has been there for years.
On a recent day in Jimani, dozens of trucks and people on foot lined up at the border crossing along a hot, dusty stretch of dirt road. Immigration agents briefly detained two vegetable sellers until a man in a passing SUV persuaded them to let the women go.
In addition to the deportations, Haitians say the crackdown is making their lives difficult in other ways: Bus and taxi drivers are now reluctant to transport them because authorities have been impounding vehicles carrying illegal migrants and handing out $270 fines. The increased border security not only makes it harder to cross but also has driven up the price of bribing Dominican border guards and migrant smugglers' fees.
Many Dominicans view their chaotic and impoverished neighbor with suspicion, even hostility. The country marks its independence not from Spain's departure in 1863 but from the end of a Haitian occupation two decades earlier.
Darker-skinned Haitians are frequently discriminated against, and the Dominican Republic denies citizenship to people of Haitian ancestry born in the country by claiming they are "in transit" — even when many have been there for generations.
Some even say the deportations don't go far enough.
Angelita Villaman, the leader of a neighborhood association in the city of Santiago, said she and others want all Haitians in their community gone by Independence Day in late February. If not, she says, she'll turn them in.
"We regret their situation tremendously, but we can't handle them," Villaman said. "The entire world should take on Haiti's problems, not the Dominican Republic."
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writer Ezequiel Abiu Lopez contributed from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.