Amid Failed “Re-Nationalization” Efforts, Tens of Thousands of Longstanding Dominican Nationals Fear Mass Deportation

By Seth Garfinkel

For many, the Dominican Republic is a luxury vacation destination with cruise ships, all-inclusive beach resorts, and a training ground for Major League Baseball. But off the pitching mounds and outside the gated hotels, conflict troubles the Caribbean island. With the implementation of an immigration policy that human rights groups see as a not-so-subtle form of “ethnic cleansing” and “ethnic purging,” tensions on the island are at an all-time high as the government redefines Dominican citizenship and threatens a humanitarian crisis on Hispaniola.

The present citizenship debate emerged after a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling that interpreted a historically ambiguous component of Dominican constitutional law. Under the Dominican Constitution, everyone born in the Dominican Republic between 1929 and 2010 inherently held Dominican citizenship unless their parents were “in transit” at the time of birth. Dominican nationality law, however, did not define the term “in transit,” and, on review, the Court ruled that the term included undocumented migrants. The court further held that the definition applied retroactively. As a result, descendants of undocumented migrants whose claim to citizenship is based on birth no longer held lawful status in the Dominican Republic. In effect, the court summarily stripped citizenship from tens of thousands of Dominicans, mostly the children and grandchildren of Haitian migrants, threatening to leave tens of thousands of people stateless.

Nationalist Implications

While the Constitutional Court’s ruling affected approximately 524,000 migrants from nearly 120 countries, the Court’s decision is largely seen as an attack on Dominicans of Haitian descent and an indicator of rising nationalist tensions on the island. Haiti and the Dominican Republic possess a shared, but distinct, history of European colonialism and slavery. When European powers partitioned the island of Hispaniola, France installed one of the world’s most brutal slave posts, bringing over 500,000 African slaves to work the sugar fields on the western side of the island – modern day Haiti. On the eastern side, in what is now the Dominican Republic, Spain installed a cattle-ranching system that operated with a less rigid class structure that allowed most people of color to live freely. After independence from their respective colonizers, the Dominican Republic matured toward political and economic stability, while their comparatively dark skinned Haitian neighbors fell toward insolvency. These economic and racial distinctions rest at the root of discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic today.

Haitian Workers at Centro de Sust. Photo by Zach Mobrice under CC license.

Haitian Workers at Centro de Sust. Photo by Zach Mobrice under CC license.

Although Haitian migrants provide cheap labor and are an integral source of Dominican economic growth, they are consistently used as political scapegoats and demonized as a social burden. In addition to discriminatory government policies, civilian attacks on Haitian migrants are increasing. In a particularly gruesome attack earlier this year, a Haitian shoe-shiner was lynched from a tree, while a crowd burned Haitian flags and chanted “Haitians out! If it’s war they want, it’s war they’ll get!” Furthermore, Dominican newspapers are filled with cartoons of racially-charged depictions of Haitians. These “funnies” portray Haitians as “bug-eyed, big lipped golliwogs” with poor hygiene and an inability to speak Spanish. These biases manifest in discriminatory government policies and social prejudices – especially in the immigration context.

According to Human Rights Watch, Dominicans of Haitian descent are unable to access basic civil functions such as registering children at birth, enroll in schools, participate in the formal economy, or travel within the country without risk of expulsion. This structural discrimination facilitates arbitrary and racially targeted detention practices to enforce immigration laws. Recognizing the dangers minority groups face under the new Dominican immigration policy, UN leaders are calling on the Dominican Republic to repeal the immigration law. As Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, head of the U.N. Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said, “Migrants are entitled to protection and Dominicans of Haitian descent have the right to reside safely in the territory, as well as children born in the Dominican Republic who are legally registered.” The longstanding racism and xenophobia driving such racially-charged immigration laws are likely to grow, unless migrants – all migrants – receive the legal standing that they deserve.

The Dominican “Regularization Plan”

Facing widespread criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups, and foreign leaders, Dominican President Medina took steps to mitigate the effect of the Court’s ruling. Specifically, the Dominican government introduced a “Regularization Plan” to provide limited relief for people who meet certain standards and postpone the deportation of foreigners trapped in an “irregular migration situation.” Among other requirements, the program provided 18-months for applicants to prove that they arrived in the Dominican Republic prior to October 2011, confirm their identity, demonstrate work history, prove financial solvency, and show ties to Dominican society through employment or education. Successful applicants would receive a temporary work permit with the opportunity to apply for full citizenship, and those who did not to apply could either request repatriation or face deportation.

While the government intended this program to “normalize the migratory status of around 435,000 people,” the process was burdened with bureaucratic flaws. The expense and challenge of submitting an application under the program’s strict requirements prevented many otherwise eligible applicants from taking advantage of the program. Most notably, the hidden costs associated with an application imposed an enormous financial burden on migrants – many of whom work low-wage jobs in agriculture, domestic service, and construction. For example, several documents must be notarized, a process which costs as much as 1,500 pesos ($35) per applicant. And those who choose to confer with an attorney in order to ensure compliance with the strict requirements face fees of over 15,000 pesos ($350).

Even with these costs, there is no guarantee that their applications will be approved. As Jesus Perez, a 25 year old accountant and social justice activist explained, “[I]t’s very tedious. They’ll send back paperwork because of a misplaced comma.” While approximately 288,000 people have applied for this program, the exact number of approvals remains unclear. As a result, many people fear that the time and money invested into their regularization applications will be wasted, leaving some in significant debt and still without lawful status.

Mass Deportations

On June 17, 2015, the “regularization” application period came to a close and the Dominican Republic started preparations for enforcement,

Children stand inside a new camp site in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti. UN Photo/Sophia Paris.

Children stand inside a new camp site in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti. UN Photo/Sophia Paris.

warning anyone without documentation to flee and readying buses for mass deportation. Since then, approximately 19,000 people have fled to Haiti in fear of government harassment and expulsion. However, many of these departures have not been voluntary. Although removals are not scheduled to take place until August, military and immigration officials have used racial profiling to identify foreign-born migrants and subject them to arbitrary detention and deportation. In some cases, those facing expulsion actually had lawful status, but are unable to present the proper documentation to officials.

Deportations are scheduled to commence in August, but Haitian officials say that the country lacks the resources and infrastructure to provide for the new arrivals. Haiti, already burdened with political turmoil, severe poverty, and still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake, must now make internal preparations for a major refugee crisis. While Haiti tries to develop a response to the impending refugee crisis, huge “tent cities” are popping up along the porous 230 mile-long border, where migrants, without anywhere else to go, are living on scarce resources. While local churches are working to provide necessities in these tent cities, international aid groups warn that nationwide shortages of food and water in Haiti make survival difficult.

Many facing deportation have lived in the Dominican Republic their entire life – some for generations. Now they face expulsion to an unfamiliar country where they have little or no ties and where the government is unable to provide for their basic needs. While Haiti and the Dominican Republic are at a diplomatic standstill, people on the island are looking elsewhere for protection. Some want the international community to intervene with solutions, not mere condemnations; others are calling on the Haitian and Dominican Diasporas to speak out against deportation, threaten boycotts, and demand sensible immigration policies. In the end, however, the Dominican Republic maintains the right to define its immigration policies. It is up to Dominican policymakers to pass inclusive laws that uphold birthright citizenship and protect the rights of its nationals – all nationals – regardless of ancestry.


Seth Garfinkel is a second-year law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Prior to law school, Seth worked at the American Immigration Council, where he supported a team of immigration attorneys in federal court litigation to protect the rights of noncitizens. Seth’s fieldwork includes research on rural-urban migration in West Africa and access to justice for marginalized groups in India. He holds a Bachelors Degree in International Studies from Macalester College.



  1. Great piece! I just am curious to know if you consider any racial implications that this situation might have. I know you mentioned how some human rights groups see what’s happening as “ethnic cleansing or purging.” From that perspective, would you consider those implications just as strong as others you mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Florence. Plainly speaking, the new interpretation of Dominican citizenship law expels dark-skinned people from the Dominican Republic. On its face, the laws seem rooted in the ongoing racial tension between dark skinned people of Haitian descent and the lighter skinned Dominican natives. As such, it is impossible to discuss this issue without considering the racial overtones within these laws. In my opinion, whether or not this amounts to “ethnic cleansing or purging” depends on Santo Domingo’s actual implementation of the new citizenship restrictions. Right now, all signs point to an aggressive campaign to remove darker-skinned people from the Dominican Republic – and that certainly gives cause for serious concern.


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