by Seth Garfinkel
A child of Haitian immigrants, Juliana Deguis was born in the Dominican Republic in 1984. At the time, the question of her citizenship was not a question at all: as established in the 1929 Dominican Constitution, anyone born in the Dominican Republic would be considered a Dominican citizen. However, in 2008, when Juliana applied for an identification card – a document required for enrollment in Dominican universities – the Central Electoral Board confiscated her birth certificate on the grounds that she held a “Haitian” name. Last month, after a five-year constitutional review of the Board’s decision to revoke Juliana’s birth certificate, the Dominican constitutional court affirmed the Board’s ruling, claiming that Juliana’s parents could not demonstrate legal status in the Dominican Republic at the time of her birth. The Court went on to claim that Juliana should have inherited her parents’ “in transit” status instead of being named a Dominican citizen.
This decision has far-reaching implications not only for Juliana, but also for hundreds of thousands of other Dominican-born people of foreign descent – the overwhelming majority of Haitian origin. While the exact number of this demographic is unknown, a recently released UN-backed study estimated that there are over 200,000 Dominican-born people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic. These people, as well as over 30,000 people born to parents of other nationalities, could see their citizenship status tampered with and possibly even rescinded. In line with last month’s ruling, the government will revoke birth certificates and withhold identity cards of people who were “mistakenly” given citizenship, establishing a class of former-citizens that does not have access to basic state services including education and healthcare. As Felipe Fortines, a Dominican lawyer of Haitian descent, told Amnesty International:
The birth certificate is the basis for all other documents. If you have any problems with that you have problems with everything, particularly the identification card. And if you don’t have that you cannot access the health services or buy anything or study, so your life becomes null and void.
To reestablish citizenship and regain access to state benefits, people with “in transit” status would have to leave the Dominican Republic, return to their “country of origin” and reapply for naturalization.
In addition to denationalizing the children of parents who were not “legal residents,” the court’s decision holds that all subsequent generations of those same families will have their citizenship revoked. Under this ruling, some families who have lived in the Dominican Republic for as many as four generations may face deportation to their “country of origin.” This is particularly troublesome for Dominicans of Haitian descent who have lived in the Dominican Republic their whole lives, many of whom have never been to Haiti and do not speak Creole. Furthermore, they may not be eligible for Haitian citizenship, which potentially leaves hundreds of thousands of people stateless.
While government officials claim that these changes are not racially motivated, the ruling exemplifies nationalist tensions between Haitians and Dominicans that have existed for centuries, tensions that have grown stronger in recent years. Although the two countries share one island, their histories are anything but brotherly. Seventeenth century European colonialism introduced a back-and-forth battle between France and Spain for control over the Caribbean island. Seeking to prioritize their economic interests, Spain and France partitioned the island between themselves, establishing a cultural and economic divide that continues today. On the west side of the island, the French established one of history’s most brutal slave posts, with over 500,000 African slaves brought to the island to work the sugar fields that would fuel the European sugar trade. The resulting colonial demographics of the island remain, with Haiti made up of a majority black populous and the Dominican Republic consisting of a comparatively light-skinned people. The constitutional court’s ruling to denationalize Haitian citizens is emblematic of an increasingly discriminatory Dominican culture.
In addition to racial differences between Haitians and Dominicans, the economic disparity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic further the divide between the two countries. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is burdened by political turmoil and some of the world’s worst living conditions. Haiti’s per capita gross national income is less than one-third of that of the Dominican Republic. And with an unemployment rate as high as 70%, it is no surprise that Haitians cross into their wealthier neighbor in search of social mobility and economic opportunity, an opportunity that shines even brighter following the 2010 earthquake that left Haiti in ruins.
In many ways, the strength of the Dominican Republic’s economy is largely a product of low cost labor provided by Haitian immigrants. Often subject to substandard pay and brutal working conditions, Haitian immigrants sustain the Dominican sugar production, the country’s second largest industry. Despite their significant economic contributions to the country, anti-immigrant sentiment within the Dominican Republic persists. A poll conducted several years ago by a Dominican magazine found that 75 percent of Dominicans supported repatriating Haitian immigrants, while a mere 5 percent believed that Haitians were “of use” to the country. This anti-immigrant sentiment is well represented in the constitutional court’s ruling, and explains public support for the new denationalization policies.
However, unlike their Caribbean counterparts, people throughout the Dominican and Haitian Diasporas are speaking out against the constitutional court’s ruling. Last week, a group of Dominican and Haitian immigrants staged a demonstration in New York City, home to approximately 94,000 Haitian and 380,000 Dominican immigrants. Many of these immigrants have struggled against anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States and feel compelled to combat discrimination against immigrants back at home. Talking to the New York Times, Estela Vazquez, a Dominican immigrant and Executive Vice President of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, explains:
We’ve seen what happens when you leave your country as an immigrant to another place and there have been obstacles and discrimination. I think as Dominicans in the diaspora, we have a special responsibility to denounce what has happened in the Dominican Republic. I’m embarrassed and ashamed. I feel compelled to stand with my Haitian brothers and sisters.
Recognizing their shared struggles as immigrants, Dominicans and Haitians around the world are standing together to protest the Dominican Republic’s discriminatory denationalization agenda. Considering Dominicans abroad remit billions of dollars to the island country, their voices can be a powerful force for change.
Back in Hispaniola, a tumultuous history between the Dominican Republic and Haiti fuels a culture of distrust on the island. This wariness, combined with a steadily increasing flow of Haitian immigrants entering the Dominican Republic in search of economic opportunity, cultivates today’s piercing anti-immigrant laws. Earlier this month, at the urging of the United Nations, Dominican President Danilo Medina met with advocates to discuss rights violations associated with the court’s ruling. While President Medina expressed sympathy to those at risk of losing their citizenship, he has issued no formal response to the court’s decision, leaving hundreds of thousands of Dominican citizens looking outward – to advocates, human rights organizations, and international governance bodies – for legal avenues to preserve their Dominican citizenship.
Seth Garfinkel is a Legal Assistant/Paralegal at the American Immigration Council’s Legal Action Center, where he supports a team of immigration attorneys in federal court litigation to protect the rights of noncitizens. He holds a Bachelors Degree in International Studies from Macalester College. Seth’s fieldwork includes research on rural-urban migration in West Africa and access to justice for marginalized groups in India.