SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Many Haitians were in hiding or staying in their homes in the Dominican Republic amid an immigration crackdown fueled by cholera fears that has seen more than 1,000 Haitians sent home.
Human rights groups have denounced the deportations, which Dominican officials say are needed to prevent the flow of illegal immigrants since last year's earthquake and to stop the spread of cholera which has killed more than 3,000 people in Haiti and sickened nearly 150 in the Dominican Republic.
Soldiers and immigration officials set up surprise checkpoints last week along highways leading into the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, asking people aboard public buses and vans for their papers. Those without them are sent back to the border.
Ginel Sama, 25, was escorted off a bus when it stopped at a tollbooth.
“I have children and my wife,” he said before being whisked away. “I had a visa but it expired some eight months ago.”
Carlos Batista, a Dominican of Haitian descent, was aboard another bus that immigration officials searched.
“I think this is very wrong because they take away a lot of them with their small children and send them to Haiti,” he said.
Frankie Espil is a Haitian migrant who owes six months' rent and has two young children but prefers to stay at home than take several public buses to his longtime construction job. The 30-year-old fears he will join the more than 1,000 Haitian migrants deported last week.
“We're all scared here,” Espil said. “We heard they're going to start coming into our homes.”
Oxene Clemente, a Haitian pastor at a Dominican church near the border, said he decided not to travel to Haiti for the holidays because he does not have enough money to renew his visa.
He believes neither he nor his seven children, five of them born in Haiti, will be deported because they are well known in the community.
But Clemente, 42, said he worries about his parishioners, many of whom traveled to Haiti and likely will not be able to return.
“The guards are in all of the streets and all of the hills,” he said.
Amnesty International asked the Dominican government to step up efforts to help its earthquake-shattered neighbor instead of forcing people back to what it called a desperate situation.
“Any Haitian suspected of cholera should be given adequate medical treatment and not be deported,” senior adviser Javier Zuniga said. “Returning people is condemning them to a situation where their health and security would be at great risk.”
Fritz Cineas, Haiti's ambassador in the Dominican Republic, said he recognized the country's right to deport illegal immigrants but asked that their rights be respected also.
“Allow those who have children to tell their families goodbye and be careful not to deport Haitians who have school-age children,” he said.
The Dominican Republic agreed in a 1999 bilateral protocol to allow deportees to gather their belongings and not be separated from their families. The country also agreed to halt deportations after nightfall and on weekends.
Officials also are issuing $270 fines to bus drivers caught with illegal migrants and seizing their vehicles.
The drivers, in turn, said they are fighting back.
“We have decided not to let any Haitians aboard,” said Antonio Marte, leader of the National Transportation Confederation, the country's largest bus drivers' union, which owns 74,000 buses.
Human rights groups fear Dominican officials will soon try other tactics to round up Haitian migrants.
“Neighborhood raids are next,” said Gloria Amezquita, who is with the Jesuit Refugee and Migration Service.
She said officials are not allowing some migrants detained to contact relatives so they can present their papers, adding that those born in the Dominican Republic risk deportation anyway because many lack the appropriate documents.
Espil, who speaks fluent Spanish, said he, his unemployed wife and his two children, who were born in the Dominican Republic, will stay at home for at least several days.
“I don't know why they are deporting us,” he said. “We're not criminals.”