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‘Stateless’ Haitians get legal foothold

Migrants start to receive papers needed for rights

Julien Henrique, 92, strolled through a sugar workers community in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. The Haitian native does not have official documents.

MANUEL DIAZ / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Julien Henrique, 92, strolled through a sugar workers community in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. The Haitian native does not have official documents.

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, 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.

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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 nonexistence 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 and helping often illiterate workers fill out forms that can be processed by Haitian consular officials.

The group, which gets financial assistance for the project from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and 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.

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 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 UN refugee commission in the Dominican Re­public. For now, Bordignon said, the aid group is focusing on elderly workers without benefits. It’s also helping women who need documents to register their children for school.

While the Dominican Republic is still largely poor, it is 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 .

In recent years, the government has adopted 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 those whose parents were legal residents.

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