South to South: Stories of Haitian Youth Migrating from the Dominican Republic
by Ted and Katharine Oswald
Haiti and the Dominican Republic (D.R.) are neighboring countries, sharing the island of Hispaniola. Haitians have historically migrated across the porous border to find economic opportunities, even though the D.R. is a developing nation with a poverty rate of 41 percent. Last year, the D.R. began deporting undocumented Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent under new, controversial immigration laws. Haitian youth — in school or out, living with family or not — have been caught up in these policies’ effects, and their stories capture some of the complexities of politics, family relations, and economic ties that drive migration between countries in the Global South.
It only took a few minutes in early April to upend Eduard’s life. At 5am, Eduard, 17, went to get a quick coffee on the streets of Azua, the Dominican town he calls home. Immigration agents spotted him, found him without identification papers, and took him into custody. Kept in a jail overnight, he was transferred to an immigration detention facility near the Elias Piña border crossing. After three days without food, he was released with around 50 men on the Haitian side of the border without any idea where to go or what to do.
Before his deportation, Eduard’s life was not so different from many other youth without legal status in the D.R: he did not exist on paper, except for a forged Dominican birth certificate; he never attended school, and he cannot read. He learned over the years to keep his head down, avoid scrutiny, and work hard. Still, his upbringing was anything but normal. Azua is a mid-sized coastal city, and he was raised by a Dominican couple after his Haitian mother died when he was very young. He never met his father, who he says is dead. Though he believes he has four brothers, he has no idea where to find them.
On the day he was sent to Haiti, the other deportees with financial means were met by contacts or made quick plans to cross back over illegally as soon as possible. Eduard soon stood alone. A waiting motorcycle taxi driver saw him and told him about the Support Group for the Repatriated and Refugees (GARR), a Haitian nonprofit organization that monitors Haiti’s border and supports displaced people. The moto driver helped Eduard get in touch with their local office and he was soon transferred to GARR’s transit center for unaccompanied minors in Lascahobas.
Eduard appreciates the transit center where he’s been the last month: it’s a safe place to rest, play, and exercise, though he knows he can’t remain there. He wants to be back in the D.R., back home, and if he could leave tomorrow, he would. But he has no means, and Eduard either misremembers the phone number of the man he lived with or it has changed. He believes his friends and surrogate family know he’s been deported, and he hates that he has no way to let them know his whereabouts, and no way to return to them.
Sixteen-year-old Jasmine is homeless. The one home she hearkens back to is in the D.R., a country where she doesn’t have the legal right to stay.
Jasmine’s upbringing proved unstable. She grew up in a Haitian village along the border until age 10, when a relative took her to Santo Domingo, the capital of the D.R., to reunite with her Haitian mother. After a year in the D.R., her father asked that Jasmine be sent back to Haiti to work in her uncle’s home with the expectation the uncle would send her to school. The uncle did not care well for Jasmine, and for the past six years she has moved between homes in Haiti, only completing three years of schooling. She has meanwhile longed to return the D.R. where two of her brothers and a sister still live and work.
When last at her father’s home in Haiti, Jasmine was subject to regular beatings and ridicule. Her brother along with other men from town regularly harassed her. One month ago, a particularly brutal beating at her brother’s hands was enough to push her to run away. With no other plan in mind, she walked to the border in an attempt to cross and somehow reach her family in Santo Domingo. Bleeding from her head and mouth as she went, she brushed off people’s concerns as she walked along, replying simply, “Nothing’s wrong with me.” When she arrived at the border, she couldn’t find a way to reach her brother by phone. As in Eduard’s situation, a motorcycle taxi driver recommended GARR’s transit center for unaccompanied minors. She has remained there the past month, waiting as social workers determine how best to help.
She thinks about her prospects often. “I can’t go to Port-au-Prince because I have no family there to receive me. I won’t join one of those orphanages run by foreigners, because I hear they don’t feed children well.” What she wants most is to be with her brothers in the D.R., and so she waits at the center, hoping for a better tomorrow.
Seven-year-old Joli was born in Haiti but has lived most of his life in the D.R. His father, Jonny, and his mother were migrants who sought work across the border in the D.R.’s agricultural sector. In mid-2015, Jonny, his wife, and two sons were taken from their home in the middle of the night and deported without any of their belongings. Jonny’s wife was extremely ill at the time, and she died three months after returning to Haiti.
Jonny has since crossed back over to visit their home in the D.R. and searched for crucial documents such as his sons’ Haitian ID papers. He found the home ransacked with every paper and personal belonging of value gone. Now, Jonny needs help from government offices to get Joli documented and enrolled in school in Haiti. Caught between two lives and two cultures, Jonny’s kids have especially suffered in their migration experiences. Without work and unable to pay government processing fees, he and Joli are caught in limbo.
Gerda is 17. She lived for eight years in La Noria, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, and returned to Haiti voluntarily in June 2015. People she knew had undergone sudden and sometimes violent deportations, and she decided to avoid a similar uprooting.
She now lives with her aunt in the Haitian border community of Belledere. Adjusting to life has been difficult, especially re-learning Haitian Creole. In the D.R., she attended school and was fluent in Spanish. Now that she is back “home” she would like to attend school in Haiti but lacks the documentation to register.
Caught In Between
These stories capture themes common to migratory experiences the world over: the consequences of heightened immigration enforcement and the strain placed on families divided by borders, the uncertainty deportations create and the economic imperatives that spur return despite the risks. For these children, the legality of crossing back to the D.R. and the politics driving their dislocations are abstract even though the effects are concrete. For Eduard, returning to the D.R. means getting back home and to work, leaving a country that feels foreign even though it is his country of origin. Jasmine wants reunification with undocumented siblings in the D.R. who might protect and shelter her when no one else will. Joli and Gerda are resigned to life in rural Haiti, dependent on others, uncomfortable with the language, and unable to get the education they desire. All four are caught in the in between, forced to come to terms with where they are and grappling with the uncertainty of what will come next.
* Names are changed and faces obscured to protect the children’s identities where a parent or guardian could not provide consent.
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Ted Oswald is the Policy Analyst and Advocacy Coordinator, and has shared the position with his wife Katharine since July 2014. From California, he continued his studies in forced migration studies in Cairo, Egypt and law in Philadelphia, PA. He is a licensed attorney and the author of the Libète Limyè Mysteries, a series of novels set in present-day Haiti. You can follow MCC Haiti Advocacy on Facebook and Twitter.