While American eyes are focused on Cuba, a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in a neighboring island with strong ties to South Florida – Hispaniola. Yet there’s a shortage of outrage over the fate of the thousands of Dominican-Haitians being displaced by a conflict that has all the markings of ethnic cleansing.
Neither reports nor poignant photos and video of Haitian families being torn apart and ousted from the Dominican Republic have been able to move the mountain of public opinion in the middle of the Cuba-U.S. news feast.
But we should speak up, and strongly. If not us, then who?
We’re home to one of the largest Haitian communities in the nation and Haitian-Americans play major roles in politics, arts and culture. We’re home, too, to a smaller but no less important community of Dominicans, and both countries are travel destinations for Miamians. Some of our wealthier residents have second homes in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and our voices can be a force for positive change.
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So why are we so distanced from the calamity unfolding at the border between two nations that share an island but are at odds over where the citizens who straddle these two worlds belong?
Haitian families who have lived and worked in the Dominican Republic all their lives — in some cases for generations — are being forced to leave in droves. They’re being picked off the streets of border towns by military police, asked to show citizenship papers, and at the slightest inability to respond, put on buses and dumped at the border.
Children — Dominicans of Haitian descent — are watching their parents being dragged away.
"They treat us like dogs," one man said in a recent WPLG Channel 10 report from the border.
The crisis stems from an exclusionary and ill-intended amendment to the Dominican constitution doing away with citizenship acquired by birthright. It was followed by a Supreme Court order that the new law be applied to those born in the Dominican Republic since 1929. That left some 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless.
Although a process for Haitians to obtain citizenship was put in place following a short-lived burst of international outrage, it is full of roadblocks and paperwork requirements that many Dominican-Haitians can’t meet. Less than 2 percent of the displaced are able to complete the requirements, according to aid workers. And Haitians with documentation say they’re still being targetted for removal and live in fear of stepping outside their homes.
Some voices in Miami have risen in their defense, including Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who wrote a letter to the Dominican president expressing his concern.
Earlier this month, at the behest of the Haitian-American chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, Jean Monestime, the commission condemned the mass deportations and asked the Dominican government to reconsider its policies.
“The Dominican government’s outrageous conduct toward citizens and migrants of Haitian descent flies in the face of human rights and recalls the 1937 government-sponsored genocide of thousands of Haitians in the Dominican Republic,” Monestime said in a statement. “I join the international community in vigorously condemning these racially motivated policies and call on the Dominican government to stop the deportations and restore the rights of citizens of Haitian ancestry.”
But U.S. lawmakers — including Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation, so quick to act on every twist and turn on Cuba — have been taciturn on a crisis that’s all too real and merits Washington’s attention.
The Dominican Republic’s cruel treatment of its Haitian-Dominican citizens can no longer be ignored. It’s time for influential people in South Florida who do business with the Dominican Republic to end their silence and make a difference.
Miami-based Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat answers that question beautifully on NPR: “You know, there's that old saying. First they come for my neighbor, and I was silent. And then they came for my friend. I was silent. And there was nobody to speak for me when they came for me.”
The voice of Miamians can be a force for change. Don’t let the ugliness of ethnic cleansing proceed — on our watch and right at our doorstep.