Thought you were a citizen? Dominican Republic changes the rules.

The Dominican Republic’s top court ruled that children of immigrants don't qualify for citizenship, even if born there. The move could be hugely disruptive to Haitians in the DR.

Ezequiel Abiu Lopez/AP/File
A youth of Haitian descent holds a sign saying, 'I'm Dominican' during a protest demanding that President Danilo Medina stop the process to invalidate their birth certificates after authorities retained their ID cards, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Aug. 12. The Dominican Republic's top court on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 stripped citizenship from thousands of people born to migrants who came illegally, a category that overwhelmingly includes Haitians brought in to work on farms. The decision cannot be appealed, and it affects all those born since 1929.

For five years, Altagracia Jean Joseph has fought for the Dominican government to recognize her as a citizen.

Born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, she was 23 when she first asked for a copy of her birth certificate, a document needed here to do everything from marry to attend university.

Even though Ms. Jean Joseph was previously registered as a citizen and her father was in the country legally when she was born, the civil registrar refused to provide the document because they assumed she was Haitian, she said.

“All of the sudden one day they told me I wasn’t Dominican because I had a strange last name,” says Jean Joseph.

She eventually convinced the civil registry to give her a copy of her birth certificate, only to watch her three siblings later struggle through the same situation. “This is our lives they are affecting,” says Jean Joseph. She may have been legally registered here at birth, but many government institutions and employers require a recently certified copy of a birth certificate to apply for basic services.

Now, her future is again in question. Last week the Dominican Republic’s top court ruled that children of immigrants – like Jean Joseph – do not qualify for citizenship even if they were born here.

In a ruling that shocked both national and international observers, the Dominican Constitutional Court ordered authorities to review the civil registry dating back to 1929, potentially stripping citizenship from hundreds of thousands of people, and creating a massive population of stateless people.

"This would qualify as one of the largest populations of functionally stateless people in the world,” says Liliana Gamboa, a Santo Domingo-based representative for the Open Society Justice Initiative. "We’re talking about potentially four generations of people who always believed they were Dominican being now told they are not."

It is a blow to generations of people born and raised here who have lived their lives as Dominicans. They are now left to ponder a life without citizenship or pursuing the arduous task of applying for citizenship in Haiti, a country many of them do not know. Rights groups say they will challenge the Dominican government in international courts. Meanwhile, observers wonder how the broad ruling will affect relations between two countries that share an island but often find themselves at odds with each other.

“This is a violation of the human rights of thousands of people,” says Joseph Cherubin, who migrated from Haiti to the Dominican Republic and founded MOSCTHA, a non-profit organization that advocates for Haitians and their families here. “This is state-sponsored xenophobia coming from a government that says anti-Haitianism does not exist in the country,” Mr. Cherubin says.

The United Nations Refugee Agency said it would look into the ruling, while the Haitian government recalled its ambassador, Fritz Cineas, for consultations.

'Unifying the country?'

For decades, Haitians have traveled to the Dominican Republic to work in sugar fields and banana plantations and, more recently, in the booming construction sector. Hundreds of thousands of families have settled. The government used to grant citizenship to all children born in the country, with the exception of people “in transit,” a group that included little more than foreign diplomats posted here.

But in 2004, a new migration law expanded that category to include non-residents, such as undocumented Haitians. Migration authorities then began to refuse to supply certified copies of birth certificates to the children of Haitians. In 2010, the government installed a new constitution that formalized the distinction.

Since, children of Haitians ­have regularly demonstrated, rallying for recognition from the only country many of them have ever known. Haitians make up the largest immigrant group in the Dominican Republic, with an estimated 458,223 residing here, according to an immigrant census released earlier this year.   

Members of a dozen other civil society groups said in a statement they will continue protesting “until the rights violated by this sentence are reinstated." Government officials said that those affected by the ruling would be able to apply for residency and eventually naturalize. “The ruling unifies the country, clarifies and defines … a legal framework for a humanitarian way out for those people,” says Roberto Rosario, president of the Central Electoral Board, which oversees the civil registry.

Human rights groups are doubtful the process will be easy or swift. Without proper documentation, people living here are likely to be subject to deportation and a lack of basic services, including health care. 

Wade H. McMullen, Jr., staff attorney at the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, says groups will move quickly to request protective status for at-risk individuals from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights previously ruled that Haitians living here, regardless of documentation, should not be considered “in transit” and that their children are entitled to birthright citizenship.

Mr. McMullen says last week’s ruling was a shock to those who have worked on the issue.

“No one predicted that the court would reach so broadly with the decision, ordering a review of thousands of records back to 1929,” he says.

A government survey released earlier this year estimated 244,151 children of immigrants are living in the Dominican Republic, the vast majority of whom are descendants of Haitians. The number affected by the ruling is likely larger, however, as it will touch several generations, observers said. 

'I'm not Haitian'

The ruling comes amid a deteriorating relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Relations seemed bound for better days after a 2010 earthquake destroyed parts of Haiti and drew the sympathy and support of Dominicans. But recently there's been a trade row over chicken and egg exports to Haiti. 

Late last week, the US Department of Labor issued a scathing evaluation of the Dominican sugar cane industry, finding appalling conditions for workers, who are mostly Haitian. The report, which came in response to a complaint brought under a trade pact between the countries, also found that the government failed to uphold its labor laws.

The Haitian government had long steered clear of commenting on the citizenship controversy, save for a vague mention of the issue by President Michel Martelly during a state visit last year.

The Haitian foreign ministry said Monday it was “very concerned by the decision,” but many are doubtful the ruling will become the basis for a larger spat.

“Unfortunately the government of Haiti has in recent years taken a rather equivocal and ineffective line [in terms of being] an advocate for the rights of the Haitian-ancestry minority,” says Samuel Martinez, a University of Connecticut professor and anthropologist who studies Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic. “So I doubt that this measure will add much if any lasting tension. … In the long run they will shrug this off.”

That leaves hundreds of thousands of people like Jean Joseph with a stark choice: Return to Haiti and apply for citizenship or live as part of a permanent underclass in the Dominican Republic.

“I’m not Haitian. I’m Dominican,” says Jean Joseph, who visited Haiti once, after the 2010 earthquake to help in the humanitarian response, and speaks only limited Haitian creole. “I’m not about to give up a single right, not one,” she says.

“I’d prefer to die than to live as a foreigner in the country where I was born.”

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