Dominican Republic Backs Down after Statelessness Furor, Allows Birth-Right Path to Citizenship

EspañolIn a unanimous vote on Wednesday night, the Senate of the Dominican Republic approved a naturalization law for people born in the nation’s territory but illegally registered with the Registry Office. This law comes 10 months after the decision of the Constitutional Court (TC/0168/13) that deprived Dominican nationality to children born in the country of illegal immigrants.

The law assures in its preamble that it is not intended to to make a judgment against the sentence of the Constitutional Court, but to recognize the legal loophole and the error of the Dominican state that stretches back to those born since 1929. With statelessness for so many people untenable, the law is supposed to provide a stable situation and paperwork for people who were enrolled in the registry by illegal-immigrant parents and for those who were never registered.

Bandera de la República Dominicana
Many Haitian children in the Dominican Republic never doubted that they were Dominican until the 2013 sentence that cast them aside. Source: Wikimedia.

The historic and problematic sentence came in September 2013, when Juliana Deguis, a Dominican of Haitian parents aged 29, was denied an identity card. When the matter was taken to court, the sentence stated that “When foreigners have an irregular immigration status, in violation of national laws, they may not invoke that their children were born in the country to obtain their Dominican citizenship, given that it is legally inadmissible to found the existence of a right from an unlawful, de facto situation.”

This conclusion was based on the 2010 Constitution. It provided for a change to the country’s policy on the matter, as it eliminated the automatic citizenship that existed from 1929.

Deguis’s case created an awkward situation for hundreds of thousands of children of Haitians born in the country and who always thought of themselves as Dominicans. International human rights organizations (such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) expressed concern that the measure would violate the conventions to prevent and reduce statelessness (1954 and 1961) and would leave hundreds of thousands of people in legal limbo.

“Thousands of the Dominican children, born of immigrants, are at risk of statelessness.”

William Charpentier, coordinator of the National Roundtable for Immigrants and Refugees (MENAMIR) — a coalition of 37 NGOs — and president of the Integral Ethnicity Foundation, believes the initial violation of rights in this case came from the Electoral Board. He believes they applied the 2010 Constitution incorrectly for people who had been born since 1929.

“They forgot about Article 18 of the Constitution, which says anyone who has citizenship can become a national before the constitution comes into effect.

From Dominicans to Foreigners, Not Immediate Citizens

The cases of exclusion actually began in 2007, according to Charentier’s account, when the Electoral Committee communicated to state offices that they should stop giving copies of documents to people with foreign-sounding last names or whose parents would not have not have had legal documents when they were signed up.

“To marry or sign up to attend college, all these people were left without any form of support, despite being born in our country and their documentation being here,” the activist explains.

For Charpentier, the passing of a new law is the beginning of the end of a process that started in 2007, when court cases in defense of this population’s rights began to be introduced. The law will benefit people caught in the legal loophole — who were registered in the civil registry and possessed an identity — along with those who were born in the county but were not registered or did not have the identity card. The Electoral Committee will register peoples’ birth certificates so they can receive an identification document (with the same number for those who already had one in dispute).

However, they will have to go from being Dominicans to foreigners for two more years before being able to access their full Dominican citizenship via naturalization. The law establishes that after initial registration, citizens will need to identify themselves as foreigners, according to immigration law.

On May 21, the president of the Dominican Republic’s Lawyers Association, Diego José García, said that this law addresses the most pressing concerns towards solving the current immigration problem. It also seeks a harmonious and just exit for foreigners who live in the country illegally, he affirmed. This is due to the fact that the law accepts the birth date of the children as evidence for the time of stay in the country for the parents.

Charpentier, on the other hand, recognizes it as an achievement, but with a bitter taste in his mouth.

“A large part of the community was expecting a wide form of recognition for the nationality of those who were born before 2010. But in any case, we see this as a limited, partial victory, so we will be doing follow-up fighting … and monitoring the process that the Electoral Committee will carry out with regards to those who have already registered,” he explains.

He assures that the correct approach would have been to recognize the Dominican nationality of all of those who enjoyed that right before the 2010 Constitution and who became foreigners in their very own country.

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