Imagine that your great grandfather or great grandmother was an undocumented Irish immigrant who came to America. Maybe he stowed himself in the belly of a cargo ship between sacks of flour dreaming of the Statue of Liberty. Maybe she came to visit a friend in Boston but stayed forever. Your parents grew up in America. So did you. Maybe you even have a young child who speaks fluent English and wears Nikes. Your child has never been to Ireland and speaks no Gaelic.
Now imagine that the United States passed a law today retroactive to the 1920s decreeing that due to the migratory status of a family member two generations ago who you never met, you are not a U.S. citizen and have no nationality. You are stateless, without access to education or any other rights in the only country you have ever known.
So it is in the Dominican Republic, where nearly two hundred thousand people will be rendered without citizenship of any nation due to a baffling ruling by the Constitutional Court last week. The court ruling, which cannot be appealed, states that children of undocumented Haitian migrants, even those born in the Dominican Republic more than eighty years ago, are no longer entitled to the citizenship previously afforded them. Authorities have been instructed to examine all birth records in the DR back to the summer of 1929 to determine who will lose their citizenship.
The New York Times interviewed a woman affected by this massive legal change:
“I am Dominican,” said Ana María Belique, 27, who was born in the Dominican Republic and has never lived anywhere else, but has been unable to register for college or renew her passport because her birth certificate was no longer accepted. “I don’t know Haiti. I don’t have family or friends there. This is my home.”
While admitting so may be difficult for Dominicans, the DR is a country largely built on cheap Haitian labor. Approximately 83% of the braceros or sugar-cane workers in the country are of Haitian descent and often paid less than $2.50 a day, if at all. The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s
In short: The Dominicans don’t want the Haitians to leave, but they also don’t want them to be Dominicans.
In order to accommodate this backward desire, Dominican migration director José R. Taveras indicated that this large class of people stripped of nationality would be given permits allowing their temporary residence until they can be given some immigrant status that does not include Dominican citizenship.
Even before this ludicrous sea change in what qualifies a person for citizenship, many Dominicans of Haitian descent faced racism and uncooperative authorities when trying to obtain the proper documents for passports and other legal matters.
According to the New York Times,
People born on Dominican soil, with some exceptions, generally were granted citizenship for generations. But people of Haitian descent often complained of discriminatory practices when getting official documents, and in recent decades the country’s civil registry officials often excluded the children of migrants whose papers were in question by considering their parents “in transit.”
This is of course despite the fact that the parents or grandparents were not in transit at all but had been brought to the DR on labor contracts by Dominicans and that now multiple generations of these Dominican-born citizens of Haitian heritage had made their permanent home there. In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights publicly denounced this practice as a way of purposefully discriminating against life-long Dominicans.
Historian Edward Paulino recently illuminated this struggle, saying of the DR, “It 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.” Indeed, it is thought that up to 84 percent of the Dominican Republic’s population is truly of African descent, yet in a 2011 federal census 82 percent identified as indio whereas just a bit over 4 percent identified as black. Discrimination and racism against Haitians is still widespread, even garnering it’s own word: antihaitianismo. For further reading, I would refer readers to the Parsley Massacre of October 1937, a Dominican government-sponsored ethnic cleansing in which twenty thousand Haitians were killed in five days. How a person pronounced the Spanish word for parsley, “perejil,” determined if they were killed. Haitian creole speakers had difficulty rolling their r’s and paid with their lives.
With or without the discriminatory evidence behind this new ruling in mind, it seems to be a complete violation of common sense to retroactively apply a new standard for citizenship, changing the status of 12 percent of a country’s population. Further, it appears an incident of legal schizophrenia since the original Constitution outlined citizenship as jus soli, changed only by a Constitutional amendment in 2010 to exclude Haitians going forward.
Perhaps most reprehensible is that the Dominican means of “solving” this issue, temporary permission to stay but no citizenship, will create a cycle of more nationless people being born into seeming indenture in the Dominican underclass, with no financial means to flee to another country and no country to call their own even if they could. It bears noting that the DR signed the 1961 U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, whereby sovereign states agree to reduce the incidence of statelessness in the world. This Constitution Court ruling and its reverberations seem to entirely contravene the spirit of that agreement. One can only hope that some judge ruling on the matter finds out rather unpleasantly that he is no longer a Dominican citizen, thereby disqualifying him from making such a wrongheaded decision in the first place.
Images: Flickr/Alex E. Proimos. CC BY-NC 2.0.