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Helping migrant workers prove who they are – and avoid exploitation

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Thousands of Haitian immigrants – some legal, many not – perform the backbreaking manual labor that fuels the factories and farms, or fincas, here. Many are smuggled into the country. Others bribe border guards after they cross the Massacre River, the dividing line here between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

They are typically low-paid, sometimes living and working in near-slavery conditions. Often they cannot get documents from the Haitian consulates here or are considered dysfunctional, and either don't have legal papers from the Dominican Republic or have their work visas held by their employers.

This makes them at risk for exploitation, Rivas and others say. Many workers tell stories of business owners who collude with immigration officers, setting up Haitians for mass deportation just before their payday. Others tell of roadblock officers who shake them down if they venture onto the main roads.

Without any way to prove their identity, they say, Haitians have no defense against predatory officials.

A few years ago, Rivas's organization, the Jesuit-run Solidaridad Fronteriza, came up with a plan. It decided to create its own identification badges, a way for the undocumented to document themselves.

Rivas and others began going town to town, interviewing workers to determine how long they've been in the Dominican Republic, where they work, how many children they have, their identification number in Haiti, and any other bits of information they could put on legitimate-looking badges.

"We must legalize the workers," says Father Rehino Martinex Breton, the director of Solidaridad Fronteriza, who has worked in the region for nearly four decades. "We propose that immigration officials allow people to circulate with the badge we give them. It has no legal authority, but a moral one."

Since the program started, Solidaridad has distributed more than 6,000 badges. Many have been arranged by Rivas.

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