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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Jan 18, 2014

A recent ruling by the Dominican constitutional court on citizenship eligibility has generated a lot of media controversy. Unfortunately, it exhibits multiple problems, including one-sided compassion, brazen unfairness, and misleading and provably erroneous information. If these inaccuracies and problems are not addressed, impoverished innocent people may suffer undesirable side effects.

The ruling: clarifications and justification

For starters, it is simply false that according to the ruling “all those born in the country after 1929, and whose parents were not Dominicans, should no longer be considered Dominican citizens.” The ruling has no effect on anyone ever born in the DR to a legal permanent resident.

Furthermore, the ruling did not “strip four generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent, of their citizenship”. One cannot be stripped of something one has never had. The ruling does dictate that according to all Dominican constitutions since 1929, those born to illegal residents, or to individuals in certain “transient” categories, have never qualified for Dominican birthright citizenship (jus soli), unless they were ineligible for the citizenship of their parents (by jus sanguinis).

The ruling makes no change to the official policy of the Dominican Republic. For instance, it can be easily verified that, at least since 1939, a valid Dominican birth declaration has required parents to show valid officially issued identification cards (“cedulas de indentidad”). Illegal residents cannot legally obtain such ID’s. Hence, any Dominican birth certificate, a person in such status may have obtained, is necessarily invalid. Such residents have been, for decades, expected to get birth certificates for their children from their consular authorities.

However, immigration errors, whether by mistake or mischief, are a problem in many societies, and when discovered anywhere around the world, the records are corrected. In fact, the birth certificate presented by plaintiffs against the ruling explicitly indicates the absence of the parents’ official IDs, which is prima facie evidence of the certificate’s invalidity. Since the plaintiffs were not likely to be the only ones with an improperly obtained Dominican birth certificate, the ruling did order an audit to identify all of those who, for whatever reasons, may have been improperly registered as Dominicans.

The ruling is not retroactive, since each case is considered under the constitution in force at the time of birth (hence the 1929 starting date). In fact, it agrees with previous Dominican court rulings and administrative decisions. For instance, years ago, the Dominican Supreme Court argued that for as long as parents in legal status under certain (“de transito”) categories were excluded from jus soli privilege, illegal residents needed to also be excluded, simply as a matter of judicial consistence: No one should gain additional legal benefits as a consequence of falling outside the rule of law.

Comparison to other countries

The excessive and unjustified outcry by many against the ruling inherently implies that the Dominican citizenship policy for illegal residents is exceptionally severe. However, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, 145 of 194 countries do not award automatic citizenship at birth to those born to illegal residents, and 19 are of unknown policy, leaving only 30 countries confirmed to do so (and in only a fraction of these is illegal immigration a serious problem). Thus, the Dominican Republic is not the exception, but the norm.

In fact, many countries award citizenship regardless of birthplace, but only to children born to their own citizens (jus sanguinis) as, ironically, does Haiti itself. According to Haiti’s constitution, no one with a Haitian parent can become stateless, and Haitian parents can obtain birth certificates from Haitian consulates worldwide (four of which are in the Dominican Republic). By the same token, a child born in Haiti to Dominicans or any non-Haitians is denied Haitian citizenship, not only if the parents are illegal residents in Haiti, but even if they have long been legal permanent residents there.

Yet, commentators do not accuse Haitians, or any of the great many countries with similar policies, of xenophobia or racism.

Likewise, it is disingenuous to imply that a person born to Haitians in the Dominican side of a small island (about the size of Austria or the US state of South Carolina) somehow manages to lose her/his parents’ language (even though she/he needs it to communicate with them), as well as all connections with the relatives and culture on the other side of the small island, even though she/he can, on Dominican soil, interact with other Haitians, receive Haitian broadcasts, and possibly, periodically cross the porous border back and forth. And, again, if such argument was valid in the Dominican Republic, it would also apply in any of the 145 plus countries where similar cases arise with normality.

Racial issues

Many have repeatedly and unjustly accused Dominicans of racial prejudice. However, there are historical events that provide alternate non-racial explanations for Dominicans to feel apprehensive about Haitians and their massive presence. In the early 19th century, Haiti started out as the more prosperous and populous side, officially defined itself as including the entire “indivisible” island, and promptly invaded the Spanish-speaking side. Retreating Haitian troops committed well-documented abuses on the local population. Years later, shortly after Dominicans became independent from Spain, Haitians invaded again, and went on to rule the Dominican side with an iron fist for over two decades. In 1844, Dominicans fought and won their independence from Haiti, but for years had to resist repeated major armed invasions from Haiti.

Since then, Haiti has retained a numerical population advantage, and a much higher population density. Very large numbers of Haitians have, at one point or another, for various reasons, entered and/or remained in the Dominican Republic without legal approval from the Dominican authorities (currently at least over half a million do so). The possibility that masses of Haitians occupy large portions of the DR, eventually gaining political control over the Dominican Republic through their Dominican-born children is by no means far-fetched.

Moreover, while some have argued that Haitians have constituted one of the most substantially underpaid labor forces, it should be noted that it also forces impoverished Dominicans competing with Haitians for the same jobs to accept the same low wages. They must also compete with Haitians in the informal economy, as well as for overloaded important public services, such as hospitals and schools. It is then undeniable that the massive Haitian presence in the Dominican Republic, while possibly beneficial to certain business interests and wealthy individuals, significantly lowers the living standards of the Dominican poor.

Those who have written the Dominican constitutions have known the past and present factors that induce legitimate concerns on the Dominican people about Haitians’ massive presence. It stands to reason that they have considered such concerns, while writing the constitutions. This may very well be the strongest argument in favor of the Dominican Constitutional Court’s ruling.

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