By Jorge Pineda
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - A deadline for enforcement of a new immigration law on Wednesday night is raising fears in the Dominican Republic of mass deportations of thousands of Haitian migrants as well as stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Dominican officials say anyone lacking proper identity documents or who has not registered for a so-called "regularization" program before the deadline could face deportation.
The Dominican government says the changes to its nationality laws aim to tackle illegal migration from neighboring Haiti. Human rights groups say the move is rooted in racism and xenophobia in the Dominican Republic towards darker-skinned Haitians.
Over the last century hundreds of thousands of Haitians have crossed into the more prosperous Dominican Republic to escape political violence or seek a better life, many ending up working as poorly paid sugar cane cutters.
Human rights groups say the 2014 law could impact as many as 200,000 Dominican-born people of Haitian descent who lost their Dominican citizenship after a constitutional court ruling in 2013 that has come under international criticism.
The 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. Government officials say Haitian migrants can be deported within 48 hours of the deadline. People registered under the regularization program as Dominicans of Haitian descent will have at least 45 days during which their applications are verified.
The Dominican army says 2,000 troops are ready to help coordinate the removal of people who fail to meet legal requirements to remain in the country.
The government says four "Welcome Centers" are being set up to receive undocumented people. Local media have reported the government has dozens of buses ready 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.
Human rights officials say it is unclear how many people who have registered will be accepted as citizens, or face removal.
As many as 53,000 people born in the Dominican Republic lack documents to make their cases, such as birth records. Of those, less than 9,000 have been able to register under the regularization program, 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)