The first time I traveled internationally without my parents I, predictably, lost my green card. It was the summer of ’97. I was 25 and had been lazy about picking up U.S. citizenship despite living in Brooklyn most of my life. My Haitian passport had become a point of pride, and simultaneously, a source of worry for my family, hardscrabble immigrants who feared our American hosts could impulsively turn on us one day and randomly decide to kick us out of their Eden. I was vulnerable. Making sure we secured American passports was meant to inure the family from an outbreak of Haitian xenophobia in Washington, an epidemic Haitians bore the brunt of every couple of decades or so since independence in 1804, whenever Washington was in the mood to pick on someone not their own size or ethnicity.
Little did I know that, while I was in Germany, partying, er, covering the bacchanalian Love Parade, my Haitian passport had gone from eccentric heirloom to albatross. A strain of xenophobia, with dear implications for Haitian immigrants, had blanketed Bill Clinton’s White House. Clinton’s 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act contained clauses that made legal immigrants eligible for deportation to their native countries if they were ever convicted of a felony or a high misdemeanor. At least according to the hostile customs officer at JFK who tried to provoke me into giving him a reason not to let me return to my crib in the BK.
I’d hustled hard to get back to the U.S. I had hitchhiked from Berlin to Bonn, where kind old ladies at the American consulate gave me two letters, one to tell the Germans it was OK to let me board the plane back to New York, the other so customs in JFK would not greet me like jerks. The Germans did their part. The Americans at customs did not. Two of them took me to a side-room, where another perused my (lack of) criminal record and made me sweat. Eventually he told me in most unfriendly terms how much easier Clinton had made it to deport people like back to Haiti, so I’d better “behave” after they let me back into Gotham. There are worst places to be deported to than Haiti. (According to the U.N., there are roughly 20 countries poorer than Haiti in the world, and most of them are in the throes of violent wars.) But damn it, I wanted the right to deport myself out of America. I had earned that right the hard way (with great tuition debt as proof). I felt violated by Uncle Sam’s new threats.
I was angry. And I still am, at the indignity of that moment. In that way I share the white hot anger, sprinkled with waves of terror, being experienced this week by Haitian Dominicans in the Dominican Republic. In 2013, the Dominican Supreme Court randomly decided that people born in the D.R. to non-citizens since 1929 did not deserve the Dominican citizenship they’d picked up. Since roughly 500,000 Haitians live in the D.R., tens of thousands of brethren have lost their legal right to live and work there. According to Harper’s magazine, only 500 have managed to secure letters from their employers and birth certificates from the D.R. or Haiti to prove their legitimacy. To expedite this “non-violent” pogrom, the authorities have reported prepared 12 buses and opened processing centers along the Dominican-Haitian border to expedite repatriations, starting today, Wednesday, June 16. In short, the D.R. decided to make Haitians reapply for their right to live in the country they lived in order to better track the Haitians in their midst and control who’s blood line (and usefulness) should allow them to stay or be out. This development is revolting, humiliating, and absurd, like parents waking you up in the middle of them and asking you to prove you’re really kin. The analogy is apt, since Haitians and Dominicans are siblings, natives of one island separated by an arbitrary American partition in 1843. Our Cain and Abel act has had bloodier lows. In 1937, the Dominican government infamously tried to simply exterminate all Dominican Haitians with imperfect Spanish accents.
Fortunately, the globalized economy offers these Spanish-speaking Haitians attractive options. The ungrateful dolts in Santo Domingo aside, Haitian immigrant industriousness are celebrated in other countries. In Curacao, for example, Haitians are so well known for working hard and doing well, with good family values, it’s become step up among some to marry a Haitian over a local. Partly for humanitarian reasons, partly because of our ability to grind hard, Brazil embraced a huge flow of Haitians after the 2010 earthquake destroyed Port-au-Prince. The 52,000 Haitian laborers in Brazil currently form its largest immigrant group, bigger even than the Portuguese, who’d been moving to Brazil for ages. But, like my reasonably paranoid family on Flatbush understood, being a Haitian immigrant means often being vulnerable to selectively prosecution. Most countries’ tolerance of Haitian migrants can waver like the stock market. Actually, their gratitude for our immense grit and grind may actually be tied directly to how well their stock markets are doing. The Bahamas is thinking about following the Dominicans’ example. Now that Brazil’s economy has stopped growing, some people wish there were less Haitians there, and the Haitians there are starting to struggle to find jobs.
Which leaves the last but far from least best option for the newly rejected and stress-out Dominican Haitians: move to Haiti and make a go of it. Haiti had one of the five fastest growing economies in the Caribbean in 2014, with 2.7% GDP growth, according to the World Bank. A huge part of the growth is coming in the tourism industry, an industry that could benefit from an influx of expert and multi-lingual Dominican Haitians.
The adjustment period will be a pain, I can’t front. Haiti’s roads aren’t as good. Universal healthcare, like in the D.R., is still a pipe dream. We, too, can be funny about people with funny accents. But we got great beaches with the potential to become as posh as Punta Cana’s. And the best part, no one in Haiti will ever, EVER, threaten to kick you out.
Freedom from paranoia, you might discover, is a beautiful thing.
Dimitry Elias Léger is the author of the novel God Loves Haiti.