Our Border Experience: A Visit to Dajabón, Dominican Republic, and Wanamen, Haiti
By María Odom*
I was part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) mission to Haiti, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic earlier this summer. Our mission was to assess the situation of Haitians more than six months after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, which killed 230,000 and injured 300,000 Haitians. Our trip included several stops along the Dominican/Haiti border.
On July 30, 2010, delegation left Santo Domingo en route to Dajabón, a border town with Haiti and a site where the Dominican and the Haitian people have witnessed a history mixed with tragedy, corruption, collaboration and a struggle for survival. We travelled for nearly six hours through fields and small towns, making a short stop to visit the diocese of Mao-Montecristi. There, we learned that agriculture and cattle farming are the main industries of the area. They are supported by a stable Haitian population ranging from 200,000 to 400,000 inhabitants, depending on the season.
Longstanding prejudice and abusive practices against Haitian migrants have challenged the community and the Church in the region. Pastoral care to this often transient population with a distinct culture and language has also proven to be a great challenge to the local church. While the community seems accepting of its history and has opened its doors to those with the greatest need, the work of immigrant integration continues to be a priority for the Church’s leadership, a factor which is essential for this community’s efforts at reconciliation.
As we approached the Dajabón area, we witnessed the workings of the Dominican military check points. Haitians who come into Dajabón through the Wanamen point of entry must travel down a main road to reach the nearest largest city, Santiago de los Caballeros. It is during this journey that Haitians report facing corruption, bribery and intimidation at the hands of Dominican police and military authorities. Other complaints include gender based violence, child trafficking, informal round-ups, detention, and deportations without due process.
In Dajabón and were greeted by Father Regino Martínez, Director of Solidaridad Fronteriza (Border Solidarity). Father Regino, a Jesuit, and the Solidaridad Fronteriza team fight to defend the rights of Haitian immigrants and work towards the reconciliation and peaceful collaboration between the Haitian and Dominican border communities. The Jesuits have been working for justice for migrants in this area for over 70 years. Father Regino offered us a historical overview of the complicated and often strained Haitian/Dominican relationship.
We later met with their sister agency across the border, Solidarité Fwontalye, where we were welcome by a group of Jesuit Haitian priests who have come to the area to protect and accompany the migrant in his or her journey across the border. Along with the Juanista Sisters of Wanamen, the Jesuits told us about the atrocities of rape and violence suffered by women and girl merchants crossing the border to sell their wares at the weekly market in Dajabón. We were also reminded of the horrors of child trafficking and child slavery.
In spite of the limited government and NGO security presence at the border, we garnered hope that Haitian migrants crossing this Northern border have advocates that are not only committed to their safety and welfare, but also labor each day for their rights to justice and the preservation of their human dignity.
* Maria Odom is Executive Director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc, (CLINIC).
USCCB Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), a subsidiary of USCCB, provide services to and advocate on behalf of Haitians in the United States. MRS operates a resettlement program out of Miami for Haitians who arrive in the United States in search of protection or a new life. CLINIC helps to provide legal representation for Haitians in the United States. Together, the two agencies work to influence the U.S. government to treat Haitian migrants with fairness, consistent with standards of decency and international law.