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Pressure yielding results for Haitian immigrants in Dominican Republic

Yawu Miller | 1/16/2014, 6 a.m.
While running for Congress in 2012, Joe Kennedy III highlighted his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican ...
U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III co-authored a letter urging the Dominican Republic not to deport Haitian immigrants. Photo courtesy office of Congressman Joseph Kennedy

Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Their history has been contentious since the newly liberated Haiti annexed the Dominican Republic in 1822. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Haitian migrant workers in what was widely seen as part of his efforts to whiten the predominantly Creole population.

There is even a word for the hatred of Hatians in the Dominican Republic — antihatianismo — and much of the public on the island is said to be behind the government’s anti-immigration policy.

But in the United States — which at various points in history has occupied both nations — many in the Dominican expatriate community have expressed opposition to the ruling.

Kennedy saw the conditions of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic firsthand when he served there in the U.S. Peace Corps between 2004 and 2006. While on assignment near the town of Puerto Plata, Kennedy began working with a group of migrant laborers who lived in a work camp owned by a Dominican sugar company.

The 300 or so workers lived in deplorable conditions, sharing a single latrine and a single water tap.

“The living conditions were pretty squalid,” he said. “There was a high incidence of intestinal parasites and low educational attainment.”

Through Kennedy’s efforts, Peace Corps workers built latrines in the camp. Kennedy, whose great-uncle, President John F. Kennedy, launched the Peace Corps, spent most of his time in the D.R. working with a set of rural waterfall guides, helping them to obtain a concession to run the national park where the falls were located. As a result of his efforts, new safety measures were introduced, salaries increased, and a community fund established to pipe clean water into the village.

For Kennedy, the exploitation of Haitian workers remains a pressing concern.

With Haitian and Dominican leaders meeting at the negotiating table, Kennedy says there’s still hope that the Dominican government can work around the court ruling. While Dominican officials have staunchly rejected the idea of overturning the court ruling, Kennedy says the government can work around it.

“The government can pass a law granting them citizenship,” he said. “There have been indications from the government that they want the time and ability to implement the decision as a sovereign nation.”

Elected to the seat vacated by former Congressman Barney Frank, Kennedy’s district stretches from Newton in the north to Fall River in the south. Compared to urban districts in Massachusetts, the 4th has a small Dominican and Haitian population.

The 32-year-old congressman, who served as an assistant district attorney on the Cape and in Middlesex County before his election, said his commitment to seeking a resolution to the crisis is “a matter of civil and human rights. We all have an obligation to stand up for justice,” he said.