SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent faced the risk of deportation from the Dominican Republic on Wednesday as a deadline for enforcement of a new immigration law approached.
Dominican officials say anyone lacking identity documents or who has not registered for a so-called "regularization" program before the Wednesday night deadline could face deportation.
The Dominican government says the changes to its nationality and immigration laws aim to tackle illegal migration from neighboring Haiti. Human rights groups say the move is rooted in longstanding racism and xenophobia in the Dominican Republic towards darker-skinned Haitians.
Over the last century an untold number of Haitians have crossed into the more prosperous Dominican Republic to escape political violence or seek a better life, many working as sugar cane cutters, house cleaners or babysitters.
Human rights groups say the new law could impact hundreds of thousands of these migrants and a smaller number of Dominican-born people of Haitian descent who lost citizenship after a constitutional court ruling in 2013 that has faced international criticism.
That ruling reversed the right of citizenship for foreigners born in the Dominican Republic, stripping children of Haitian migrants of their Dominican nationality, human rights groups say.
Dominican President Danilo Medina has said there will be no mass deportations. But undocumented Haitian migrants can be deported within 48 hours of the deadline, government officials have said. Those who register under the regularization program will have 45 days during which their applications are verified.
The government says more than 210,000 people have registered under the program. Those deemed eligible could earn a two year temporary migrant status.
The Dominican army has 2,000 troops ready to help coordinate the removal of people who fail to meet legal requirements to remain in the country. Four "Welcome Centers" are being set up to receive undocumented people, the government said.
Local media have reported the government has dozens of buses on standby to transport undocumented people to the Haiti border.
For the last few weeks long lines of Haitian migrants and Dominican-Haitians have formed outside a government office in the capital seeking to register under the regularization program, as police in riot gear stand guard.
On Tuesday, Milaine Nocent beamed as she showed a reporter a copy of an official document obtained after four days of standing in line to register her children as Dominicans.
"Now we can stay," she said with evident relief.
Augustin Wasner, a construction worker who said he lacked the needed documents, vowed that whatever happened he would never return to Haiti.
"I have brought many papers, I talked with many men but I can’t get inside," Wasner said.
There is no official data on how many Dominicans of Haitian descent are in the country, human rights groups say, as many never obtained documents with the civil registry. Less than 9,000 have been able to register under a separate naturalization program which expired in February, according to Human Rights Watch.
Amnesty International said it was concerned many Dominican-born people with a legitimate right to stay could be removed because they lack documentation.
Writing by David Adams. Additional reporting by Peter Granitz in Port-au-Prince; Editing by Andrew Hay