No Longer Citizens

No Longer Citizens
Children observe as the Dominican Republic flag is lowered at the end of the day at a school in Batey Bombita, a Haitian-Dominican community

Guillermo Antoine was born 55 years ago in the Dominican Republic and has never left the country. Yet now he is being told he’s no longer a citizen of his country.

Mr. Antoine’s mother was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian immigrant parents. His father was born in Haiti and immigrated to the other side of the Caribbean island to harvest sugarcane. Under the laws of the time, Mr. Antoine was a full Dominican citizen, and he has a cedula — a citizenship card — to prove it. He has voted in national elections, just as his mother did.

But when he recently took a bus from Batey Bombita, where he lives, to Vicente Noble, the town where he was born, to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, a necessary document for many legal procedures in the country, he was turned down. Mr. Antoine was told that his mother was listed in a registry as Haitian, and so he is no longer entitled to a copy of his birth certificate. He was told that he is no longer a Dominican citizen.

“I was born here in the Dominican Republic. I’ve never been to Haiti. I don’t know anything about Haiti. I feel like a Dominican. But now they don’t accept me,” he said.

Mr. Antoine is one of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent who have ceased to legally exist. Like more than 12 million people around the world, including Rohingyas and Biharis in Bangladesh, Bhutanese and Tibetans in Nepal, and Mahamid Arabs in Niger, they are stuck in a legal limbo without protection of the law. They are stateless.

Illegal to “look Haitian”

Under laws dating to the 1930s, children born in the Dominican Republic, even though their parents were Haitians, were Dominican citizens provided their parents were in the country more than 10 days. Yet beginning in 2004, the Dominican government began changing the laws, and many electoral officials started ignoring the constitution to interpret the law in a racist manner. Last November, the country’s Supreme Court upheld a law to clean up civil registry records, giving officials an excuse to begin systematically confiscating or annulling legitimate birth certificates.

As a result, even children born to parents who themselves were born in the Dominican Republic are being told they are now foreigners. Government agencies are applying this new interpretation retroactively. People who for decades have been considered citizens are now being denied identity documents and prohibited from accessing education, health care, professional licensing and other citizenship benefits. A birth certificate is required to marry or open a bank account, but the government now systematically refuses to issue identity documents to Dominicans of Haitian descent. Officials may deny these documents just because someone has a French last name or “looks Haitian.”

“I was born here and my children were born here, but now my daughter is being told she can’t go beyond 8th grade because they won’t give her a birth certificate. How is she supposed to get educated and get a job? Do they want her to become a delinquent on the streets?” asked a 23-year-old Dominican-Haitian woman who is a domestic worker in Santo Domingo. Out of fear for herself and her daughter, she requested that her name not be used.

Haitians and Dominicans share the island of Hispañola, and their history is replete with tensions that have occasionally devolved into violence. Haiti’s military invaded the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in 1822 and ?didn’t leave until 22 years later. (Dominican independence day celebrates the country’s liberation from the Haitians, not the Spanish.) In 1937 former Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo ordered the massacre of 20,000 Haitians living along the border in an effort to “cleanse” his country.

For decades, Haitian men were nonetheless encouraged to immigrate to the Dominican side of the border to work in the country’s sugar plantations. Most lived in segregated rural slums, called bateys, often literal slave camps surrounded by vast stretches of sugarcane. With the fall of Haiti’s Duvalier regime in 1986, the migrant population diversified, with more women crossing the border and more migrants heading to urban centers. Rumors of a “Haitian invasion” came in handy when a politician wanted to distract public attention from economic or political troubles. As with migrant populations elsewhere, the Haitians have served as convenient scapegoats for domestic woes.

But when a massive earthquake ravaged Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince in January 2010, all that history was washed away by a wave of Dominican solidarity that quickly rushed aid to Haiti and brought the injured across the border for medical care.

“The first six months after the quake, we saw ourselves as sister peoples, and Dominicans from all sectors were part of the effort. We were the two wings of the same bird,” said Sonia Adames, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service office in Santo Domingo.

The newfound solidarity had a short shelf life, however.

“Six months after the quake, especially with the excuse of the cholera outbreak, the old prejudices took over and we reverted to mass deportations and immigration policies that violated basic human rights,” Ms. Adames said. “The government said it was deporting people because of the threat of cholera, but I don’t understand how deporting people from here protected anyone from cholera. They supposedly stepped up health screening at the border, but that basically meant that you had to pay a bigger bribe to get across, as if paying a bigger bribe meant you didn’t have cholera.”

Forever foreign

The shifting legal landscape has left many parents unsure of what will happen with their children’s education. Education is free for all until the 8th grade, regardless of legal status. From that point on, parents have to prove their child’s nationality. Ms. Adames says that has created chaos.
“Under the new laws, kids who were born here legally have become foreigners in their own land,” Ms. Adames said.

“Even children who represent the third generation born here, children who could never go back to Haiti, have to enter their names in the pink book [of foreign residents] at the electoral offices, and no one is sure what’s going to happen to those names. Will they be deported? Will they be forced to live forever as foreigners in their own land?”

The chaos of citizenship only exacerbates the already vulnerable position of Haitian-Dominican women, many of whom work as domestic workers or in the informal economy, often selling things in the streets. Those are sectors that are always difficult to organize, and fear of deportation or stigmatization makes women even more reluctant to speak up for their rights.

Both Jesuit Refugee Service and the Haitian-Dominican Women’s Movement work intentionally with women, something that often begins with providing a space where they can meet on Sunday afternoons — the only time many have off from work — to share their common struggles.

“Many of the women are single mothers and often have a child on either side of them,” said Mercedes Acevedo, who runs a women’s accompaniment program for Jesuit Refugee Service in the border town of Jimani. “Most who work as maids earn about 1,000 Dominican pesos a month (about $25). It’s a very precarious life. The women are vulnerable, with little access to capital compared to men, who can more easily move around to where the jobs are. I don’t know how the women survive.”

The Jesuit program helps women earn additional income by weaving and crafting items they sell in the town market.

Ironically, if Ms. Acevedo or other Jesuit Refugee Service staff want to find a place for the women to meet, they’re more likely to get a positive response from an evangelical congregation than from a Catholic church.

“Catholicism is strong in Haiti, but when Haitian immigrants come to the Dominican Republic, they find a better welcome in the evangelical church,” said Ms. Adames.

The dominant religious institution in the country, the Catholic Church is plagued by the same prejudice that afflicts much of the culture, Ms. Adames says.

“The Catholic Church isn’t characterized by evangelical accompaniment, or by letting itself be transformed by this new face of the immigrant,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a parallel mass or a Haitian ministry, but the culture and the way of doing liturgy remain untouched. The church has programs of assistance but no advocacy. Treating the Haitians in the country as ‘the blacks,’ as the poor, keeps public policy from advancing, and in the church it’s no better, because we end up treating them as objects needing our charity rather than subjects who question what is happening around them.”

Identity drama

Prejudice against Haitians is worse in some areas of the country, such as in the northern city of Santiago, where banners on public streets tell Haitians to go home. In 2010 mass deportations were carried out there by the military. People who looked Haitian were grabbed as they walked along city streets and thrown onto a bus with bars on the windows. When a human rights lawyer tried to intervene and stop the forced repatriation, she was beaten by soldiers.

“Anti-Haitian sentiment is strongest in the north, where people consider themselves white and Hispanic and think the Haitians smell bad and are poor and ugly,” Ms. Adames said. “In the capital, the phenotype is more mixed. There’s a lot of blackness in Santo Domingo and the south because these areas have a long history of immigration because of the sugar plantations.”

Ms. Adames says the drama about identity affects not just people in Santiago.

“We’ve constructed an national understanding of dominicanidad that intentionally ignores the black presence in our country,” she said. “If you look at people here, we’re black, yet we believe ourselves to be white. There have always been intellectuals who maintained that we’re Hispanic while warning against a black invasion that could come from Haiti. This fear has penetrated our veins. We tell a child that if they keep sucking their thumb the Haitians are going to come get them.”

Such fear means that whoever speaks up on behalf of immigrants or their descendants is going to face rejection.

“Since I started working as a director for Jesuit Relief Service, I can’t have lunch with my larger family without it turning into a program of consciousness-raising. All the politically progressive sectors in the country can agree on many things, but if you start to talk about the rights of people not to be repatriated back to Haiti, then the consensus breaks down. You simply can’t talk about it,” Ms. Adames said.

This racism is so insidious that it is affecting new generations, according to Jerpin Suero, the director of the Jimani office of Jesuit Refugee Service. “Among youth, if they see a kid who is lighter skinned, they say he can’t be poor. It’s an image that’s been sold to Dominican youth. Lighter skin equals wealth, whereas darker skin means you’re poor,” he said.

This discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian ancestry produces what Ms. Adames considers a form of schizophrenia.

“A lot of Dominicans have emigrated to the U.S. and Europe, and we pay close attention here to how they are treated,” she said. “The Dominican constitution has paragraph after paragraph guaranteeing that our citizens, or the children of our citizens, have full rights to a legal process wherever they are in the world. Yet when it comes to recognizing the rights of immigrants and their children and grandchildren within our own country, we’re very closed. That’s wrong. The rights of one migrant should be the rights of all migrants.”

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and response senior correspondent. Read his blog at

Posted or updated: 3/31/2012 11:00:00 PM

A girl plays with a white doll in Batey Bombita, a community in the southwest of the Dominican Republic whose population is composed of Haitian immigrants and their descendants.

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* Tara Barnes: Editor