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Dominican Republic: Exiled to Illegality in the Land of One’s Birth

By: Andrew Woodbury - @A_W10 - Feb 17, 2014, 3:51 pm

EspañolIn April of 2013, the Associated Press banned the term “illegal immigrants” from its style book. In a blog post by executive editor Kathleen Carroll, she describes the style shift: the word “illegal” should refer only to actions and not to individuals.

Carroll explained that the change was part of a move away from labeling people and toward labeling behavior. While behavioral focus in this respect normally fixates on migrant action, the shift serves as a subtle reminder that behavior is a two-way street. Immigrants aren’t inherently illegal; rather, state laws make individuals illegal if they come without permission, and sometimes through no action at all.

Subject to arbitrary state decisions, many migrants effectively live on probation — in constant fear that the government may tweak legal wording that would illegalize their status.

In terms of glaring, and inhumane, state violations against migrants, one need not look further than the Dominican Republic, for which no style book in the world holds an appropriate term. With hundreds of thousands of Dominican-born residents set to become not only “illegal,” but stateless, the hypocrisy of state illegalization of migrants is on full display for the world to see.

Protesters against the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic’s decision to strip thousands of citizens of their nationality.
Protesters stripped of citizenship by Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court. Source: Facebook.

On September 23 of 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court passed a ruling which effectively denationalized hundreds of thousands of its own people. The ruling retroactively denies Dominican nationality to anyone born in the country after 1929 who doesn’t have at least one parent of Dominican blood. Anyone not matching this criterion would be deemed “illegal” in the country. Officials say the ruling is irreversible, and the Electoral Board has one year to draw up a list of people that will be excluded from citizenship—marking the 23rd of September, 2014, as the prospective date of illegalization of several thousands.

Since September, the ruling has been evaluated and its implications are simply overwhelming. An immigrant census released in 2013 estimated 245,000 Dominican-born, first generation children of immigrants living in the country, with the vast majority — some 210,000 — being of Haitian descent.

This reveals the ugly racial undertone of the ruling. Dominican officials are on record stating they estimated the number of people affected by this decision to hover around 24,000. However, many experts suggest the much higher estimates reflect the barely-disguised attempt to specifically target residents of Haitian descent, with whom tensions have always been high.

“The impact could be truly catastrophic,” said Jorge Duany, a Dominican migration expert and professor at Florida International University. “They are stigmatizing an entire Haitian population.”

As horrific as that is, it only gets worse. The Dominican Republic is not just home to Haitian descendants, but to families of many different origins who are also affected. “This affects the sons and daughters of immigrants of not just Haitians, but Jews, Europeans, Chinese — the entire country,” Mu-Kien Adriana Sang Ben, a noted Dominican historian, told Reuters.

Dating back to 1929, the ruling is also multi-generational, and human rights experts estimate that the number of affected people could surpass 450,000.

Haitians protest the court's ruling.
Haitians protest the court’s ruling. Source: Twitter.

In a shocking effort to justify a seemingly unjustifiable ruling, some have suggested that the 2013 decision will not affect anyone who came to the country legally. This loses weight, however, when a government odiously alters what and who is and isn’t “legal.”

For decades the Dominican Republic granted citizenship to children born on Dominican soil to immigrant parents. The only caveat was that children born to parents deemed to be “in-transit” were not granted citizenship. Since at least 1939, the Dominican government defined “in-transit” as “foreigners entering the country principally to travel elsewhere, as tourists, as members of foreign forces, or as temporary workers.”

That changed in 2004, when in legislature adjustments, the country altered the definition to include children of any citizen without documentation — further jump-starting its illegalization process. That decision was also met with harsh criticism by many who took the common sense approach that “in-transit” doesn’t extend across generations. Eduardo Famarra, a Caribbean expert at FIU, voiced what many were thinking by rhetorically offering, “How can you be in transit for 40 years?”

A year later, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Dominican government violated international and regional law, as well as its own constitution, with this ruling. It stated the government could not use a parent’s in-transit status as a reason to deny citizenship, and ordered the state to provide nationality cards to those victimized by the ruling. The distinction, however, was formally ratified in 2010, when the government passed a new constitution.

As we fast-forward into 2014, the debate still rages on. Largely lost within the political and ideological arguments about the law is that the majority of those affected — people of Haitian descent — are, in fact, in no way Haitian. They were born, legally, on Dominican soil, under Dominican law, and identify as Dominican. Most have never been to Haiti, nor speak Haiti’s native tongue of Creole. This ruling cannot make them “more Haitian” — if that was the intention.

“We are Dominicans – we have never been to Haiti. We were born and raised here. We don’t even speak Creole,” said Banesa Blemi, one among thousands left in limbo awaiting the twelve month deadline.

“I’m asking myself what country am I from. I guess I’m from the country of the undocumented,” reiterated 82-year-old Sentilia Igsema, showing her Dominican voter ID card.

Forget rule-of-law agendas and open border debates. Forget immigration reform, and even the terms or style we use to refer to migrants. The Dominican Republic’s illegalization of its own people isn’t an ideological issue. It is a human issue — and one on track to have inhumane results.

Andrew Woodbury Andrew Woodbury

From Toronto, Canada, Woodbury is a Young Voices advocate, editor, and educator at the International Language Academy of Canada. Follow him @A_W10, and read more of his featured PanAm Post column, “Connecting the Dots.”