Haitians get help getting passports, and a way to survive, in Dominican Republic

Julien Henrique spent 50 years toiling in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic and 10 more trying to collect a meager monthly pension after he left the company.

Born in neighboring Haiti, Henrique never received a birth certificate before crossing the Dominican border as a young man, when passports were unnecessary for those willing to cut cane under the punishing sun. By the time he left the fields, he still didn't have official documents, which meant he couldn't prove his identity and receive benefits he had worked for all his life.

"You come from Haiti, you've got nothing," the 92-year-old Henrique said, leaning on a stick in this sugar workers community in the eastern Dominican Republic.

Thousands of Haitians toiling in the Dominican Republic live in a similar limbo, enduring not just legal non-existence but mounting hostility toward migrants from the far poorer half of Hispaniola island. That uncertainty, however, is ending for many as they finally win official papers, and with them, long-denied benefits and rights.

Workers from the Scalabrinian Association, a Catholic order dedicated to helping migrants and refugees, have been fanning out to rural communities of sugar workers known as bateyes and helping often illiterate workers fill out forms that can be processed by Haitian consular officials. The association, which receives financial assistance for the project from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the European Union, helped win passports and birth certificates for about 2,000 people in 2012 and hopes to secure papers for at least 5,000 more this year, said Idalina Bordignon, the group's director in the Dominican Republic.

That's a small but promising launch for a migrant population estimated at around 1 million people, but it's helping address the complaints of many former cane workers, who have held noisy protests in the capital to demand their pensions. While visas are necessary for Haitians to live and work in the Dominican Republic, border guards and police rarely enforce the requirement in sugar-growing regions such as San Pedro de Macoris, about 44 miles (71 kilometers) east of Santo Domingo.

"This is obviously very small compared with the enormous number of people without papers but it's a start," said Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, a representative of the U.N. refugee commission in the Dominican Republic.

For now, Bordignon said, the aid group is focusing on elderly workers who have lost out on benefits. It's also helping women who need documents to register their children for school.

While the Dominican Republic is still largely poor, it's vastly better off than Haiti, with an economy about eight times larger. The Dominican Republic thrives as one of the top tourism destinations in the Caribbean and is a significant agricultural exporter, specializing in coffee, sugar and cacao. Both industries require cheap labor that Haitians have long provided.

Yet many Dominicans have come to resent the influx of lower-paid workers from across the border and have sought to make their country less hospitable to noncitizens.

In recent years, the government has adopted new penalties for companies that hire illegal workers and has amended the constitution to no longer automatically grant citizenship to people born in the country before 2010, except for those whose parents were legal residents. The Dominican Republic saw a major influx of Haitians that year, after a massive earthquake destroyed much of the Haitian capital and devastated the country's economy.

In practice, the new laws have rendered many Haitians and their children in the Dominican Republic "stateless," without proof of citizenship in either country, and cut off from legally working or attending school.

"The plight of the stateless is extremely important to us," said Valerie Julian, a U.N. representative in the Dominican Republic. "How many there are, we honestly don't know."

While a Haitian passport doesn't give migrants legal status, it can help people establish the bureaucratic paper trail that helps them live more freely. For starters, a passport would help migrants open a bank account, get married or register their children for school, said Vargas Llosa.

"There is an enormous difference between having a document that says who you are and not having anything," he said.

So far, the government has backed the campaign, and in December, President Danilo Medina authorized enough funds to pay more than 1,000 former workers their pensions, with their first payments already going out.

However, Dominican officials haven't indicated whether they will compensate Haitian workers such as Henrique for decades of lost benefits.

Henrique's new passport means he can at least start claiming his $125 monthly pension, enough to see a doctor for the first time in years about a skin condition and to check complications from a leg fracture he'd suffered long ago on the job.

"I can't work anymore. I don't have the strength," Henrique said while Scalabrinian volunteers helped others fill out forms. "How am I supposed to survive?"

Louselene Bien-Aime said she would use the passport to register her four children with the government, two of whom were born in the Dominican Republic before 2010 but don't have birth certificates. The street vendor said she believed the passport would also protect her from frequent immigration raids.

Julienne Prophete beamed on a recent afternoon as she held her new passport in her hands, a first since 1971.

"I'm very happy," the 62-year-old said. "I'm thankful to God first and the government second, for this precious gift."