SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – A 23, September 2013 ruling by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court retroactively and arbitrarily strips an estimated 250,000 people of Haitian descent living in the country of their citizenship rights. Despite international outrage, President Danilo Medina announced that the decision would not be discussed in a January 7th meeting with Haitian government officials concerning migration, trade, poverty and the environment.
The ruling was the latest injustice lobbed at people of Haitian descent living in the country, who are by far the largest group of immigrants to the Dominican Republic. It orders authorities to revoke citizenship rights of children of undocumented immigrants dating back to 1929, even if they were born in the country and previously held Dominican documents. The decision defines even people who have lived in the country for generations as “in transit” or “temporary workers,” allowing them to be defined as immigrants, newly “illegal,” despite previous citizenship status. Because of the retroactive application, four generations of people will be rendered stateless.
International rights groups warn that the ruling will create a human rights crisis by instantly creating upwards of 250,000 stateless people, now vulnerable to mass discrimination and possibly deportation.
Stateless people do not have access to health care, education or voting rights. They may not obtain or renew passports, birth certificates or ID cards. Lack of paperwork makes it impossible to hold down a job, legally marry, register children or open bank accounts.
Human Rights Watch authorities expressed concern that the decision could discourage people suffering abuses from seeking help for fear of the government learning their status. The United States State Department already considered children of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic to be “particularly vulnerable to trafficking” before they were stripped of their citizenship. Without paperwork, children are increasingly vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labor as they can easily slip through the cracks.
Those caught in the chaos of the sudden ruling wait in legal limbo for what will happen next.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen to those people…based on what the Dominican government is saying, these people are not Dominican citizens and will have to leave and effectively go to Haiti, where they are also not citizens,” said Wade McMullen, NY based attorney at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
“It creates an extremely complicated situation.”
Robert Rosario, president of the country’s electoral commission, told reporters that people would be able “to legalize themselves through the national legalization plan,” a plan which does not exist despite a 2004 immigration law in the country that called for its creation. It is also unclear who would be covered by this law if it did exist. The government claims that once this plan is implemented, it will take “no more than two years” for legalization. They did not comment on where people could go or how they could live while waiting out this two-year period, or when a law like this would even be implemented.
Though Haiti technically grants citizenship to children of its nationals, the vast majority of those stripped of Dominican citizenship come from families who have been in the country for generations and have none of the necessary paperwork or qualifications to access Haitian citizenship rights. It can be extremely difficult to prove descent from a Haitian national for those who have previously never been considered anything but Dominican. Many have never even been to Haiti and do not speak Creole or have any ties to the country.
The sudden and arbitrary expulsion of people of Haitian descent from the country is all the more unjust when one considers how these families ended up in the Dominican Republic in the first place. The Dominican Republic and Haiti share a small island, Hispaniola. For decades, Haitians were brought over to cut sugar cane on plantations where they lived in squalid camps or shantytowns known as “bateys,” and were paid slave wages. There is a long, often violent, history of oppression of Haitians by their Dominican neighbors. However, though Haitians often faced discriminatory practices when applying for official documents, people born on Dominican soil were granted citizenship for generations.
People of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic today remain poor and occupy the lowest rung of society. Many still work on sugar plantations where wage abuses remain common. Others work as construction workers, maids, or in other low-paying jobs. Many live in urban slums and plantation camps. Dominicans consider people of Haitian descent to be “black,” practically a slur in the country, which, despite its own mixed heritage, still considers itself to be descendant from the Spaniards that once colonized the island.
“[The Dominican Republic] is a country of immigrants, but no other group is like the Haitians, which arrived with the cultural baggage of a history of black pride in a country that chose to identify with the European elite,” Edward Paulino, a historian who studies the two countries, told the New York Times.
Supporters of the Constitutional Court’s ruling claim that it will help “regularize” the country and clarify its citizenship laws. It is clear that this decision is nothing short of institutionalized racism and an attempt at ethnic cleansing by a group that has long made their distaste for their black neighbors known.
The Dominican Republic’s Immigration Director, José Ricardo Taveras, is a member of the nationalist party who has long complained publicly about the “Haitianalization” of the country.
The Dominican government rejected a human rights report on 7 December 2013 that accused it of discrimination following the court ruling, calling it a “subjective, partial, and unilateral version” of the issue.
The idea that international organizations are meddling in Dominican affairs is gaining popularity among some in the country. Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez called the ruling just, saying “International organizations do not rule here. I don’t accept anybody coming here to decree anything. No country, not the United States, not France, nobody. Here, we are in charge.”
The problem is those in charge have issued a ruling that violates international laws, including standards of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which states that people cannot be stripped of their citizenship.
Ironically, the ruling also violates Dominican law, as the constitution promises that all are entitled to the same rights regardless of religion, gender, skin color, or national origin.
It is clear in the face of such dangerous and abhorrent rights violations that the international community must do more “meddling,” not less. Visit moschtha.org and donate to support efforts to seek justice for these newly “illegal people.”
– Sarah Morrison
Sources/Photo: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ebony, Star Tribune, The Huffington Post, NPR, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, Mosctha