Faces of a divided island

Updated 3:22 PM ET, Wed April 13, 2016

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Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (CNN)The anti-immigrant rhetoric on the radio, in shops and in the streets is familiar:

The influx from our poorer neighbor is overwhelming. They steal jobs. They are dangerous. They take advantage of our laws.
So is the counterweight:
They are seeking better lives. They do the labor-intensive jobs locals won't. They contribute to the economy.
This isn't about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or deporting undocumented Central American immigrants. It's an argument taking place 700 miles off the coast of Miami on the island of Hispaniola, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti -- two nations divided by history as much as a border.
It's an uneasy coexistence for countries whose intertwined histories of colonization, conquest and racism over the centuries have left deep wounds.
    In recent years, controversial court rulings and laws have renewed tensions in the Dominican Republic.
    Hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent were stripped of their citizenship and forced to prove they were born here. Hundreds of thousands more who are undocumented immigrants have been forced to register with the government.
    In a political fight with arguments similar to the debate in the United States, the immigration hard-liners won. Last year I traveled across the Dominican Republic and Haiti to see the fallout from that battle. Among the people I met: A soccer player who left the Dominican national team because she couldn't prove her nationality, a law student fighting for Haitians' rights, and a woman who saw her town divided along racial lines.
    Here are their stories amid scenes of life on the island.
    Raquel Aristilde de Valdez, a Dominican of Haitian descent, is a business owner in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

    Foreigner in her own country

    Standing in front of her flower shop in Santo Domingo's Pequeño Haiti, or Little Haiti neighborhood, Raquel Aristilde de Valdez introduces herself as Haitian, though she was born here, in the Dominican capital.
    She belongs to a slice of the Dominican population -- about 2.5% of 10.4 million -- born in the country with at least one immigrant parent.
    I ask her how she sees herself, and she says "Dominico-Haitian. Fifty-fifty."
    There is pride evident as she explains how easily she shifts between Dominican Spanish and Haitian Creole, fluent in the languages and cultures of the two countries.
      "I speak Spanish perfectly well, I speak Creole perfectly well," she says. "I eat Haitian food, I eat Dominican food."
      That between-two-worlds feeling is familiar to children of immigrants.
      Despite her comfort inside Dominican society, Raquel considers herself an outsider. And she is treated as one.
      "My skin color, my race, my physical features don't say I am Dominican," she says.
      To her, the only things that make her "Dominican" are her birth certificate and her national ID card, or cedula.
      For a time, even those things were stripped from her, when a lawsuit accusing the government of discriminating against people like Raquel backfired.
      In the suit, another Dominican-born woman of Haitian descent alleged that authorities denied her a cedula because her parents were immigrants.
      For decades, the Dominican Republic's Constitution had bestowed citizenship on anyone born on Dominican soil, just like in the United States. That ended in 2010, when the Constitution was rewritten to exclude children of undocumented immigrants.
      The lawsuit sought to validate the citizenship of those born to immigrant parents before 2010. Instead, the country's highest court ruled in 2013 that all residents born to immigrant parents dating back more than 80 years were not entitled to citizenship.
        In a flash, approximately 210,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, including Raquel, were made stateless.
        Human rights groups sounded the alarm over the population of noncitizens that was so suddenly created.
        International pressure mounted, including from the country's Caribbean neighbors, and the Dominican government provided a "fix": a law creating a path to restore citizenship.
        "No one born in the Dominican Republic will be deported, and no one who holds or is entitled to legal Dominican nationality will be deprived of it," Dominican Ambassador to the United States Jose Tomas Perez wrote in an op-ed in July.
        The ambassador is partly correct. The mass deportations that many feared have not come to pass. But fear may have been enough. Heightened racial tensions and the idea of deportations caused tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent to leave on their own. It reminded me of the anti-illegal immigration laws some U.S. states have passed, and the talk of "self-deportations" in the 2012 presidential election.
        Raquel was among the fortunate who didn't have to fear for long.
        Her birth in Santo Domingo had been recorded in the civil registry at the time. With proof of her Dominican birth, she quickly reclaimed her citizenship under the new law.
        Dominicans who bristle at accusations of xenophobia point to this legal remedy.
          But less than a third of the estimated 210,000 left stateless successfully reclaimed their citizenship.
          Figures provided by the Dominican government last year show about 64,000 people benefited from the law. About 70% of those who qualified to have their citizenship restored didn't or weren't able to seek a legal remedy.
          The more common situation, I learned through dozens of interviews, is that children of immigrants are not recorded in the civil registry at birth.
          The reasons are many -- fear of deportation if the parents are undocumented, births outside of hospitals, or language barriers.
          "For me it was easy," Raquel says, "but others had more complications."
          An immigration issue cost Cherlina Castillo Pierre her spot on the Dominican national women's soccer team.

          Born to play soccer

          Cherlina Castillo Pierre was raised in Baraguana, one of the Dominican Republic's many bateyes -- slums that sprang up during the 20th century as Haitians were brought in to work the sugar cane fields.
          Baraguana is in the northern Dominican town of Imbert, close enough to the coast to feel the full force of the sun but not the salty breeze.
          Cherlina grew up playing soccer in the batey. "I learned by playing with the boys," she says. "I was the only girl playing."
          She started playing competitively at age 12, and three years later was selected to the Dominican national women's under-17 team.
          Her future looked bright. Soccer would open doors for Cherlina, who was born in the Dominican Republic, the child of undocumented Haitian immigrants.
          She played halfback for the national team because, she says, her Haitian roots made her stronger than her teammates.
          Her toughness and attitude surely was reflected on the field; records show that Cherlina played in five games representing the Dominican Republic, drawing a red card in one match and a yellow card in another.
          The dream began unraveling when she had to renew her Dominican passport to travel with the team. She had been issued a passport as a child, but now that she was no longer a minor, she needed a cedula to renew it. Although this was before the 2013 court ruling, it was not uncommon for authorities to demand proof of a person's birthplace before issuing a cedula -- let alone a passport. Because her birth had not been recorded in the civil registry, she faced an uphill climb, and had to forfeit her dream.
          Children play soccer in a dirt lot in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.
          She wore the Dominican jersey on her back, but the country it represented considered her a foreigner.
          It confounded her. She is proud of her Haitian heritage but considers herself a proud Dominican as well.
          "If I had a chance to play for the national team again, I would," Cherlina says. "But I didn't get my hopes up because I know I don't have a cedula, and with no cedula I won't be able to play anywhere."
          An official at Fedefutbol, the Dominican Republic's governing body for soccer, told me that Cherlina's name didn't ring a bell and that the Dominican team would never have a Haitian on it.
          "She's Dominican," I explained.
          I sent the federation the records of Cherlina's matches and asked for more details, but got no response.
          Cherlina now works at a restaurant in Imbert and, since 2013, has been among the stateless.
          Because her birth was not recorded in the civil registry, the law to "fix" her status would require multiple identification documents, notarized testimonies of Dominicans to vouch for her birthplace, and a two-year wait to apply for citizenship.
          Her father passed away, Cherlina says, and she has no idea where he kept the documents that may prove her identity and place of birth to the satisfaction of Dominican authorities.
          Bernard Teillon is an undocumented Haitian immigrant who has lived in the Dominican Republic for decades.

          A wheelbarrow and a dream

          Bernard Teillon says he has lived in the Dominican Republic for 50 years.
          And he wants to go back to his native Haiti, as soon as he can afford it.
          A long-time laborer in the fields -- sowing and harvesting crops -- Bernard would qualify for legal work status under a recent Dominican law to address the population of undocumented immigrants.
          The National Regularization Plan was the government's answer to the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants already living in the Dominican Republic, some for decades.
          A 2012 census of migrants found that about 460,000 Haitian immigrants live in the Dominican Republic. More than half, about 61%, were undocumented.
          The requirements to get right with the law sound reasonable enough:
          Prove your identity and provide evidence of how long you've been in the country, your ties to Dominican society, and your work and socioeconomic condition.
          It's an invitation to "come out of the shadows," to borrow a phrase from the U.S. immigration debate.
          These apparently simple requirements, however, proved for many to be a bureaucratic nightmare, a hell brimming with red tape.
          Bernard, for instance, struggled to get a copy of his Haitian passport or birth certificate to prove his identity. He said he couldn't afford the time or money to put together the required paperwork.
          It is not impossible to get legal status without a birth certificate or passport. Some 20,300 undocumented immigrants registered without them, according to the Dominican Interior Ministry, but the alternate routes are not easy. It might require Bernard getting seven sworn statements from Dominicans who would attest to his life in the country.
          Bernard found it too daunting. His neighbors are mostly Haitian. What Dominicans would vouch for him? Do the Dominicans he has worked for or interacted with remember him or know him well enough to write a testimony on his behalf? The immigration controversy is red hot, so many Dominicans might not want to put their name as a reference for an undocumented immigrant.
          Bernard rents a small room in the Hato Mayor neighborhood of Santiago, the country's second-largest city. Immigration raids have snared neighboring tenants, and he knows it could happen to him.
          "I confide much in God, so I have confidence I will be all right and that nothing bad will happen to me," Bernard says.

          Timeline: A brief history of Hispaniola

          Still, he wants to leave.
          "Not so much out of fear, but out of respect and dignity," he says. "To see so many of my countrymen fighting so hard to get a simple identification card, and they still face so much discrimination in this country. All this has taken me to a place of consciousness to go back to my country."
          He wants to depart the Dominican Republic on his own terms.
          But he says he is too poor; even saving money to pay for transportation to the border is out of reach.
          Next to his room, a wheelbarrow is locked to a post with a chain. It's an old wheelbarrow, and it is the one asset Bernard owns that helps him earn money doing small jobs.
          "Haiti is also hard," he says, recalling why he left decades ago. Bernard remembers it as a place of permanent persecution during the rule of strongman Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
          Though times have changed in Haiti, it made me wonder about the effects of trying to solve a country's immigration problem without talking to the nation of origin. Can taking a unilateral, hard-line stance against Haitians work if there is no future in Haiti either?
          Bernard says his health is failing. The stress makes him feel that his age has caught up to him.
          "I will go to Haiti," he says. "My future is uncertain."
          Mirlande Saint Jean waits to get her national ID card after sleeping in line on the sidewalk.

          Long lines -- and longer waits

          The sun was past its highest point in the sky in Puerto Plata, the historic port city on the Dominican Republic's northern coast, when I met Mirlande Saint Jean. She was outside the city's main government office, waiting in line to try to get her immigration status "regularized."
          She had been waiting since before the sun came up -- actually, since before the sun went down the day before.
          But Mirlande says she really has been waiting for much longer.
          "The thing is that every time I come to get my cedula, something happens," she says. The authorities tell her she is missing this document, or that document.
          This is her fourth trip to city hall.
          "I spent the night outside, sleeping on the street. Everyone slept on the street," she said.
          Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Mirlande says the Dominican Republic has been home for 20 years.
          In the city of Santiago, the line of immigrants waiting at city hall stretches for blocks.
          There was no dire situation that pulled her to emigrate, she just felt too closed-in in Haiti. She wanted to be somewhere with more possibilities. She settled in Puerto Plata, working first in a restaurant and now at a villa.
          Politically, she is not opposed to the government's immigration controls. Every country needs to have its residents documented properly, she says.
          "For me, this is better, so that I can live my life in peace," she says. "But everything they ask for is too much."
          Technically, the process doesn't cost money, but Mirlande and others have had to hire attorneys to help sort through the law.
          "All I want is to live in peace," she says. "All I want is to be left alone like I leave others alone."

          'I'm still struggling'

          The scene in Puerto Plata is repeated in other cities around the Dominican Republic. At dawn the next morning in Santiago, a line of migrants stretches around the block containing city hall and continues across the street along a park.
          "I came here looking for a better life, a life I couldn't find in Haiti," says one man who didn't give his name. He says that better life never materialized.
          He has a job as a doorman, he says, but "I'm still struggling. My job doesn't pay well."
          The man, a native of Gonaives, Haiti, doesn't hold much hope that his life will improve with legal status, but after 14 years in the Dominican Republic, it's home now.
          Surprisingly, many of the immigrants I meet in line aren't opposed to the idea of registering the undocumented. It's only fair, they said, that a nation should know who is living within its borders. But this isn't the way to do it. The laws, they say, need to be carried out fairly.
          It left me wondering: How can a nation tackle the issue of illegal immigration -- by asking migrants to trust the government's proposals -- when the same government has not addressed its own legacy of racism? Prejudice on Hispaniola dates back to the first colonies and intensified as Dominican leaders portrayed Haitians as inferior to those with Spanish and indigenous roots. How can immigrants give the government the benefit of the doubt that there are no ulterior, xenophobic motives behind the new policies, when they have suffered discrimination from the same government for generations?
          A Dominican taxi driver contends with Santo Domingo traffic. Immigration seemed to be on everyone's mind.

          Hate on the radio waves

          It's early morning, and we're on the road between Santiago and Puerto Plata. The drive is longer than an hour, and because we're tired, the small talk subsides and it's silent in the car.
          Except for the radio.
          Two hosts are talking about immigration. They are discussing a campaign by groups supporting Haitian immigrants to boycott Dominican exports to Haiti.
          "The Haitians say they want to boycott Dominican products. So they will eat dirt, since you know the Haitians eat dirt," one host says.
          The other host agrees: How are Haitians going to eat, since they don't produce anything? "They are ungrateful."
          Dominican President Danilo Medina's restrictive immigration policies are good for the country, the hosts say, praising him for sticking to his guns.
          One of the hosts suggests Haiti is trying to discredit the Dominican Republic in the eyes of the international community.
          "I think this is the only country in the world where migrants aren't mistreated," he says. "Here, everyone is supportive."
          We turn the dial and hear more of the same on another station.
          Haitians "are unappreciative of this country," this host says.
          Everything the international media has reported about the mistreatment of Haitians is wrong, he says.
          "We are not the abusers of the Haitians; we are their saviors," he says.
          The rhetoric is hateful and racist.
          "(Haitians) lack hygiene, they're not sanitary," the host says.
          We turn the radio off.
          Men play dominoes on the sidewalk of Santo Domingo's Little Haiti neighborhood.

          How the dominoes fall

          Four men are playing dominoes on a sidewalk in the capital's Pequeño Haiti neighborhood, taking turns placing -- or slamming -- their game pieces on the specially made table.
          This barrio may be called "Little Haiti," but three of the men don't hesitate to share their views of Haitians in the Dominican Republic.
          "They are ungrateful, they're traitors," one of them says. Another refers to one of this country's darkest chapters, the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians by orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
          "I, like Trujillo, would send them all to burn," the man says as he makes a double throat-slashing gesture.
          All the while, one of the domino players is not speaking. He is younger and darker-skinned than the others. The same man who said he would burn Haitians nods toward the younger man and says, "We treat them better than anyone else."
          The Haitian man says nothing, keeps his head down and plays the next domino.

          The fear of violence

          Ramona Ramirez runs a food kiosk in the Ortega neighborhood of Moca, a city just east of Santiago. Dominicans and Haitians lived in Ortega peacefully for years, she says.
          Until a year ago.
          That's when her relative, 18-year-old Carlos Jose Nuñez, was kidnapped and found dead two days later, his body tossed by a bridge.
          Ramona Ramirez's relative was kidnapped and killed in Moca, sparking violence and international condemnation.
          His face was swollen from an apparent beating. His legs were bound.
          Witnesses told police that two Haitians who lived in the neighborhood had killed Nuñez, a Dominican who also lived in Ortega, according to local press reports.
          When the news of the killing reached the neighborhood: "Oh my, if you saw a Haitian they would have stabbed him to pieces -- stabbed him to bits," Ramona says.
          It just about came to that.
          Dominican vigilantes armed with sticks and machetes assaulted their Haitian neighbors, shoving a woman to the ground as she screamed and grabbing a man with dreadlocks and cutting off some of his curls with a pocketknife. The mob broke into Haitians' homes, destroying belongings with baseball bats and hoes and removing personal items and setting them ablaze.
          The incident, which came to symbolize the severity of the tensions between Dominicans and Haitians, was captured on video and shared widely by human rights groups.
          After the attacks, all the Haitians in Ortega fled. The Diario Libre newspaper reported that some 300 Haitians left the neighborhood.
          "They were scared, of course," Ramona says. "I wouldn't stay, either. Why? So they can stab me?"
          I met Ramona several months after the attacks, but it was immediately clear upon approaching Ortega that tensions had not subsided.
          This house was among those raided in attacks on Haitians in Moca.
          There were four of us in the car as we approached the neighborhood -- myself, a photographer, a Dominican driver and a Haitian guide.
          Our guide rolled down his window and asked two Haitian workers for directions.
          The Ortega neighborhood starts there, one of the workers said, pointing across the street. But you can't go there, he added, motioning at our Haitian guide.
          No Haitians allowed, the worker said. If you enter, you risk getting attacked.
          There was a tense moment inside the car.
          Our guide insisted on going, suggesting the risk must be exaggerated. But our driver feared a possible attack, saying the risk was legitimate.
          The workers persuaded our Haitian companion to stay with them and chat while the rest of us crossed the street.
          Down an unpaved road, another local resident, Elpidio Nuñez, led us to one of the homes the vigilantes ransacked.
          "We are good people here," he says. "When Haitians come, we give them a hand up."
          It was a mixed neighborhood and everyone got along, he adds.
          "Now, (Haitians) don't enter the neighborhood at all," he says. "Because of fear."
          We stood at a barbed wire fence; on the other side was the house Elpidio was showing us. There was some junk out front, but it didn't seem abandoned. There was a radio playing inside and a motorcycle in the gravel driveway.
          Elpidio asked us not to cross the fence and would not tell us who, if anybody, was living inside now that the Haitians were gone.
          Wendy Osirus is among those who have organized campaigns to help immigrants gain legal status.

          Fighting for himself and others

          In Batey Baraguana, an impoverished sugar worker's village near Santiago, Wendy Osirus makes the rounds with the skill of a politician, asking about each resident's immigration status.
          He congratulates those who gained legal status and patiently answers questions for the others.
          "You have to organize yourselves," he tells them.
          Wendy moved to the Dominican Republic from Haiti when he was 4. Now 29 and studying law, he created an organization to teach people how to apply for legal status and avoid scams.
          The NGO he created is called the Ministry of Dominican-Haitian Orientation, or MONDHA by its Spanish acronym. His small team has helped restore citizenship or get legal work status for thousands of immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
          "There are people who don't understand or comprehend the immigration plan," says Antoine Raphael, one of the organizers at MONDHA.
          The government passed the new immigration laws, he says, but didn't create a campaign to explain how to benefit from them.
          Given the history of racism in the country, Antoine says, it is hard not to consider that the laws were set up to fail the migrants.
          "In my opinion, the government doesn't want to help the people," he says.
          It was the economic and political uncertainty after a coup in Haiti that pushed Wendy's family to leave Cap-Haitien and move to the Dominican Republic in 1992.
          Inside the offices of MONDHA, the  organization created by Wendy Osirus to help immigrants in the Dominican Republic.
          Growing up in Santiago, Wendy recalls other students in his public school feeling pity for him because of the unrest in Haiti.
          That view changed after the devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and displaced more than a million others.
          "The attitude toward Haitian migrants changed because their numbers multiplied, and so did their desperation," Wendy says.
          As Haiti's sole neighbor, the Dominican Republic was forced to absorb some of the costs associated with the disaster, Wendy says.
          In Santiago, Wendy showed me the remains of what was once a boarding house for Haitians.
          Before the immigration crackdown -- before Dominican landlords were hesitant to rent to undocumented Haitians -- this building had maybe 10 small rooms divided by a narrow hallway. The rent for each room was about $23 a month, split among the four or five tenants who crammed into each room. All the tenants shared a single bathroom at the end of the hall. The building was gutted for a carpentry shop.
          The landlord, Juan Mata, recalls at least four immigration raids on the property in the past few years. He hated how the immigration agents would knock down the doors to the boarding house each time.
          "The Haitians who lived here were peaceful," he says. "They are hard workers."
          The new immigration laws mean added scrutiny for Dominican landlords who rent to Haitians.
          "I'm not racist. I treat Haitians just like Dominicans," Juan says, "But I follow the law. If they don't have documents, I can't rent them a room."

          Gallery: Creating a home away from home