Columns / Discourse / January 15, 2014

When the melting pot fails: A Haitian struggle

What do you get when you combine chronic economic hardship with steady surges of immigration? A mixed bag of xenophobia, nationalist sentiment and cultural/identity confusion. In spite of the “melting pot” description of cultural immersion, history shows us time and time again that people are rarely hospitable toward potential would-be citizens, even toward the second generation immigrants who are born and raised in the adopted country.

The Dominican Republic’s recent Constitutional Court ruling is the latest example concerning immigrant population policies, which has led to an extreme measure: the revoking of citizenship for the children of previously undocumented Haitians. The state court’s controversial ruling moved to revoke the citizenship of Dominican-born Haitians born after 1929 and whose parents were undocumented migrant workers with an exception applying only to those who have at least one parent who identifies as ethnically Dominican.

Suddenly, being born in the Dominican Republic is not enough to be granted citizenship. Individuals must also have at least one Dominican parent to be considered a legal citizen — no matter how many generations have been born and brought up on Dominican Republic soil. This court action gave a legal voice to a long history of the discrimination and resentment Haitians have long experienced.

According to human rights organizations, this ruling means that approximately 200,000 Dominican-born Haitians could potentially lose their citizenship, even though Dominican Republic officials claim that such a policy will only affect 24,000 people. Whichever the correct number, it is clear that the policy automatically puts individuals of Haitian descent in a perplexing state of limbo. Dominican-born Haitians — many of whom do not speak Creole nor do they have immediate family in Haiti — will become essentially stateless with this decision. Public sentiment on the decision is markedly polarized with hardly any moderate views.

The fact that the court’s decision cannot be legally appealed makes the situation all the more grave and unnerving. Racial and cultural animosity has always, at varying degrees, characterized Haitian-Dominican relations. The two countries’ respective colonial pasts under European rule (Haiti was under French rule while the Dominican Republic was under Spanish rule) plays a considerable role in influencing how these nations view one another today.

Additionally, Haiti’s standing as the country with the highest poverty rate (77 percent, according to the latest World Bank analysis) does not sit well with the Dominican Republic. The notion that Haiti indirectly brings down the status of the Dominican Republic, its only neighbor, is pervasive if not outright prejudice. It is impossible to ignore prominent racial divide between the darker-skinned Haitians and lighter-skinned Dominicans. It is unfortunate that the common experience of being under European empires — as different as their respective experiences actually were — has failed to spur the slightest sense of camaraderie. How will deported Haitians, many of whom were born and raised in the Dominican Republic, assimilate to Haitian society?

A society that is still in the process of recovering from the calamitous natural disaster that occurred four years ago, all the while experiencing political upheaval and rampant poverty that existed long before the earthquake. To what extent will the new ruling deter Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic? After all, desperate people will go through desperate lengths as a means to survive in a more prosperous country—legal citizenship be damned. How will Haiti be able to support the migrating influx of Haitians when the state has yet to find permanent housing for about 150,000 of its own citizens in Port-au-prince?

But then again, for many Haitians, life in the Dominican Republic is a life marred by chronic discrimination, financial hardship and poorly paid employment. The standard of living in the Dominican Republic may be considerably higher than Haiti’s standard of living, but what good are higher standards when one is constantly marginalized into second class citizenship status? Of course, one scenario is still far better than the other as many immigrants from developing countries know all too well. The task of figuring out who is eligible for citizenship and who is not eligible will be a bureaucratic nightmare that will take a while to complete. In the meantime, however, what are the people in “citizen limbo” to do as they wait for what happens next?

What rights and privileges, if any, do they hold as a people without a country to call home? I cannot help but wonder anxiously if bloodshed will eventually come about as a result of this policy.

Mydel Santos

Tags:  citizenship court action Dominican Republic Haiti human rights immigration migrant nationalism undocumented xenophobia

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