Passport, job, marriage still out of reach for many Dominicans, despite new law

A law paving a path to citizenship for Dominican-born individuals of foreign descent has been praised internationally. But difficulty of getting crucial national ID documents is likely to leave many vulnerable.

Ezequiel Abiu Lopez/AP/File
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses Congress as Senate President Reinaldo Pared looks on in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, July 16, 2014. Ban asked legislators to work toward preventing Dominicans of Haitian descent from being denied Dominican citizenship.

After seven years of fighting the government to recognize her as a Dominican citizen, Juliana Deguis Pierre won this month: She received a national identification card.

But the battle is hardly over for the hundreds of thousands of Dominican-born children of foreign descent who were stripped of citizenship here after a 2013 high court ruling.

Ms. Deguis, whose Haitian parents were working in sugar cane fields here when she was born, became the poster child for the citizenship movement after she sued the government for refusing her access to documents like her birth certificate. She lost the case, which effectively meant that generations of children of immigrants dating back to 1929 lost their citizenship.

The international community expressed outrage at the ruling, pushing President Danilo Medina to pass a law providing a path to citizenship for Deguis and about 25,000 others like her.

The law was praised by the likes of Vice President Joe Biden and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, easing international pressure on the Dominican government. However, human rights organizations say the underlying problems of access to national identity documents in the Dominican Republic remain. As the government begins to implement the naturalization law this month, tens of thousands or more people remain vulnerable to being left functionally stateless. They won’t be recognized by the Dominican government and are unlikely to return to the countries from which their parents hailed – mainly Haiti – to request citizenship there.

“My reading of the situation is that the law resolves ... the cases for about 10 percent of Dominicans of Haitian descent,” says Santiago Canton, executive director of the RFK Partners for Human Rights in Washington, DC. But the UN estimates as many as 250,000 people were affected by the ruling, which means hundreds of thousands are still at risk of failing to be recognized as citizens here.

'Problem continues'

One of the reasons the new law doesn’t help everyone is that many families never registered the birth of their children in the first place. The law gives them a period of 90 days – starting Aug. 4 – to prove they were born in the country, but the bureaucratic process could take months.

“These are the most marginalized of the marginalized people,” says Manuel Robles, a spokesman for Dominicanos X Derecho, a collection of civil society groups working on the issue, referring to the population that is not automatically granted citizenship by President Medina’s law. NGOs are fanning out across the nation to help children of immigrants obtain documentation of their births here.

If civil society groups aren’t successful in registering this population, potentially more than 200,000 people will be left with no documentation. National IDs are required to get formal jobs, graduate university, get married, and obtain passports, among other things. 

“The criticism and the pressure has diminished … but the problem continues,” says Mr. Robles

'A decisive step'?

The Dominican Republic changed its Constitution in 2010 to do away with birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. Last year’s court decision applied to anyone born after 1929, leaving generations of families at risk.

Medina swiftly pushed through the new law, and, during a visit to Santo Domingo in June, Mr. Biden said the legislation was a “decisive step” taken by a “very decisive leader.”

That made headlines. But Biden went on to say the Dominican government now needed to work hard to implement it.

“To some extent, the government is taking advantage of what has been said [internationally] to make it seem like the problem is resolved,” Mr. Canton says. 

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