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On The Eve Of Dominican Day Parade, A Deportation Policy Draws Criticism

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The Dominican Day Parade draws thousands to Manhattan's 6th Avenue each year. But tomorrow's event could also bring out demonstrators. That's because the government in the Dominican Republic is planning to deport thousands of people of Haitian descent, even some who have spent a lifetime in the DR. And that controversy is reverberating across the Haitian and Dominican communities in New York. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing Dominican national anthem).

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Outside of the Dominican Consulate in New York City on a recent Friday afternoon, a group of ex-patriots broke out into the Dominican national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

STARR: This is one of several demonstrations that have sprung up in the city over the past few weeks. Supporters of the Dominican Republic have turned out in full force. Betty Pimentel is a real estate broker who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years.

BETTY PIMENTEL: (Through interpreter) Our country - economically, socially and culturally speaking - cannot take in more Haitians.

STARR: Maximo Padilla, head of the Committee for Dominicans Abroad, agrees. He says that particularly after the 2010 earthquake that decimated Haiti, many Haitians sought refuge in his home country.

MAXIMO PADILLA: (Through interpreter) We can't put all of the Haitian people on our shoulders because we are a poor country, too.

STARR: It's estimated thousands of Haitians did move to the Dominican Republic after the earthquake. But many of the people of Haitian descent who face expulsion would have been considered citizens just a few years ago. The Dominican constitution drafted in 1929 awarded citizenship to almost anyone who was born in the country. That changed in 2013, when the supreme court there ruled birthright citizenship could be revoked for people who could not prove they have at least one Dominican parent.

RICARDO BRISARD: And it's very troubling what they are doing.

STARR: Ricardo Brisard is a native of Haiti who teaches English in New York City. He was also protesting at the embassy. And the issue hits home for him. He has family in the Dominican Republic who were forced to leave.

BRISARD: We are very worried because they have been deported and their houses have been taken over by other folks, so it's...

STARR: Standing with Brisard is Migelangel Barrero, a Dominican who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years. He doesn't support what is happening in his country of origin.

MIGELANGEL BARRERO: (Through interpreter) It's a discriminatory act. They're doing it because they're black. They're taking actions that violate human rights.

STARR: Leaders in the Dominican Republic say racism has nothing to do with it. But Silvio Torres-Saillant doubts that. He's a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Dominican Studies Institute at City University of New York. He says there's a long history of encouraging Dominicans to identify with their Spanish ancestry.

SILVIO TORRES-SAILLANT: You are trained to identify with the oppressors of your ancestors.

STARR: Anti-Haitian sentiment has sometimes erupted in horrific violence, most notoriously in 1937. Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the execution of tens of thousands of Haitians. Activists like Sophia Cantave of the organization End Apartheid in the DR, see echoes of that history in the current campaign.

SOPHIA CANTAVE: When people take out their own self-hatred and make others the scapegoat, usually that scapegoat is someone who is of African descent.

STARR: Cantave was born in Haiti, but came to the U.S. at the age of 5. She says what is happening in the Caribbean is a live issue in New York.

CANTAVE: As immigrant communities, we're still very much connected to the countries that we come from. I didn't grow up in the country, but I feel it.

STARR: Cantave is grateful that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke out against the deportations. Her organization is pressing for a boycott of the Dominican Republic, starting with their tourism industry. And she says pro-Haitian activists are planning a protest of their own for later in the month. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.