Modern Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic dates from the late nineteenth century, when increasing North American capital boosted sugar production. Dominicans have never welcomed these immigrants. Their presence resulted from economic necessity borne of the reluctance of Dominicans to perform the menial task of cane cutting. The 1920 census listed slightly under 28,000 Haitian nationals in the Dominican Republic. Successive governments attempted to control the numbers of Haitians entering the country; the border was periodically closed in the 1910s and the 1920s. By 1935, however, the number had increased to more than 50,000. Trujillo ordered a general roundup of Haitians along the border in 1937, during which an estimated 20,000 Haitians were killed.

Since the 1950s, a series of bilateral agreements has regulated legal Haitian immigration. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the government contracted for 10,000 to 20,000 temporary Haitian workers annually for the sugarcane harvest. Observers believed that an equal number of Haitians entered illegally. The 1960 census enumerated slightly under 30,000 Haitians. By 1980 estimates suggested the total number of Haitians residing permanently or semipermanently was on the order of 200,000, of whom 70,000 were workers.

During the 1970s and the early 1980s, some Haitians rose into higher positions in sugar production and in other areas of the economy. They continued to account for the vast majority of cane cutters, but roughly half of all labor recruiters and field inspectors also were Haitians. In addition, Haitians worked harvesting coffee, rice, and cacao and in construction in Santo Domingo. By 1980 nearly 30 percent of the paid laborers in the coffee harvest were Haitian; in the border region the proportion rose to 80 percent. A reasonably skilled coffee picker could nearly double the earnings of the average cane cutter. Overall, however, Haitians' earnings still lagged; their wages averaged less than 60 percent of those of Dominicans.


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