The government of the Dominican Republic extended its deadline suddenly on Wednesday from 7 PM to midnight for all migrants in the country to complete a "regularization" process or face deportation.
In recent weeks and days, critics have denounced the policy as targeting the large population of Haitian migrants and Dominican-born Haitians in the country. A majority of immigrants in the DR are of Haitian descent.
The DR has warned that today would be the last day for migrant workers to register with the "National Regularization Plan for Foreigners in the Dominican Republic," or be forced to repatriate to their home countries. That deadline had already been extended from a previous end-date of May 31, and had been set at 4 pm today.
But the process has been marred by confusion over the application of the rules and inefficiency at government agencies, which has left scores of people waiting in long lines for hours to get registered before the deadline.
The Dominican interior minister even claimed on Tuesday that the confusion was being generated by "outside groups" who are "directing Haitians en masse" to the offices. Earlier this month, the government called the registration process a "resounding success."
The program has sparked a renewed interest in the troubled relationship between both countries, which share the island of Hispaniola.
Haitians, who are generally darker-skinned than Dominicans, often perform the worst jobs and receive the worst payments in the Dominican Republic. For many, migration to the DR offered opportunities after the 2010 Haiti earthquake devastated the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The program has also brought attention to what some critics call a disdain in the country for Haitians. Local reports on Wednesday, for instance, said that non-Haitian migrants who were attempting to get registered were being ushered into government offices ahead of the Haitians who were still waiting.
The registration program could leave hundreds of thousands of migrants — 90 percent of whom are of Haitian origin — without a job or home. It is aimed even at "foreigners" who were born in the Dominican Republic, raising the prospect of a segment of people who may emerge as temporarily stateless and without any citizenship.
The silence of the Haitian government regarding the program is also exacerbating tensions; Haiti has not made any officials comments as of Wednesday. That apparent lack of preparation by authorities is also raising the possibility of thousands of deported migrants arriving at the Haitian-Dominican border without any immediate support, in a country that many do not know.
"I am Dominican," reads a sign held by a boy during a demonstration outside the Dominican Republic's National Palace in May 2013. (Photo by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez/AP File)
For decades, Haitians have suffered discrimination and violence in the DR, highlighted by the 1937 massacre of up to 20,000 Haitian workers ordered by former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Dominican President Danilo Medina launched an aggressive campaign to control migration in 2013. The country's constitutional court ruled that year that children born since 1929 to undocumented migrants could not be considered Dominican citizens.
Last year, authorities established rules to enroll migrants in civil registry records, as a step before acquiring Dominican citizenship. Those who did not have papers could also apply for legal status upon completing a registration process.
However, a fear of discrimination by authorities and the precarious working conditions of many Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans prompted many to avoid the registration process altogether, human-rights organizations and observers said.
This week, the looming deadline caused thousands of mostly Haitian migrants to flood the registration offices. The Dominican government estimates that of the 250,000 migrants that are expected to be legalized under the program, 96 percent are of Haitian origin.
Around 560,000 migrants live in Dominican Republic, and 458,000 of them are Haitians, the government said.
No migrants will be able to file for naturalization after today, and the government could begin deportations tomorrow. But according to the minister of foreign relations, Andres Navarro, there will be no manhunt against those who lack papers. Navarro said the DR will work closely with the Haitian government, to assure the safe return of each citizen.
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