How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
In 2013, the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Tribunal decided to revoke the citizenship of Haitians who were born in the country but could not produce satisfactory documentation of their birth and residency under the new law. Soon thereafter, the government launched a campaign to naturalize those of Haitian descent who could provide documentation and deport those who couldn’t. When the program ended this past June, an unknown number of people (with conservative estimates stating at least 9,000) were left in a stateless limbo. To take care of the backlog, the Dominican government recently announced that it would extend its efforts into August, but President Danilo Medina is already moving forward with the deportation of those in question. In turn, there has been an international outcry over the court’s decision and the ensuing policies, which will remand many deportees to a country where they have never lived and do not speak the language. In tapping long-standing prejudices and pushing forward with a program that has run afoul of international law, the Medina government runs the risk of becoming a pariah state and weakening its all-important sugar and tourism industries.
This story begins in 2008, when Juliana Deguis Pierre traveled to a local electoral office to request a voter identification card with her Dominican birth certificate in hand. Rather than issue her a voter ID, the local commission seized Deguis’s birth certificate because of her two Haitian last names. Five years later, the nation’s highest court—the Constitutional Tribunal—ruled that the electoral commission’s confiscation of Deguis’s birth certificate had been justified because she was born to two undocumented Haitian immigrants and, therefore, was incorrectly registered as a Dominican citizen at birth. The court based its ruling on a constitutional provision that excludes from Dominican citizenship children born to foreigners who were simply “in transit” through the Dominican Republic, an interpretation that had been in place since 1929. Instead, the court extended the term “in transit” to include undocumented immigrants on Dominican soil. That move meant children of the undocumented cannot receive citizenship.
In doing so, the court’s ruling effectively rendered hundreds of thousands of former Dominican citizens stateless. It also led the Central Electoral Board to continue to produce a list of “foreigners” in a situation similar to that of Deguis and register them as such. Revoking the citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian descent deprived them of their right to nationality, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. While it is difficult to pin down the precise number—given that the undocumented and their children fear coming out of the shadows now and that they live in often marginal areas that are not easily accessible—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that more than 200,000 people were left stateless by the court’s decision, including an estimated 24,000 who, like Depuis, were originally registered as Dominican at birth and more than 200,000 children of undocumented immigrants who had never registered at all.
To supposedly rectify the situation, the Dominican Congress approved the Naturalization Law (169 to 14), which was meant to regularize the status of undocumented immigrants and their children: if residents of Haitian descent could present documentation that they had been born in the Dominican Republic, they could receive citizenship. But the program came with a devil’s bargain: Dominicans born to foreign parents who didn’t have documentation were required to self-report as “foreigners illegally residing in the country,” which came with its own stigmas, or face deportation.
The program, which began in November 2013, provided a narrow window for aspiring naturalized citizens to both produce the required documentation and provide it to overburdened local authorities. Many affected citizens live in rural areas and shantytowns for marginalized sugar cane workers; using the country’s weak public transportation infrastructure to appear before local electoral authorities was a near-insurmountable burden. Making matters worse, the guidelines for acceptable documents were opaque and inconsistent. There was also the discomfort of turning oneself in as a “foreigner illegally residing in the country,” hardly words that would inspire confidence in the intent and outcome of the program. And while the deportations were intended to start at the end of the program—originally in May and now extended to August—given all of the uncertainty, it is a huge gamble to self-declare as a foreigner and be forced to wait months for a decision, waiting years to become a naturalized citizen.
Not surprisingly, few of the nation’s undocumented Haitian immigrants and residents of Haitian descent showed up to register. Out of the established population of unregistered nationals, more than 63,000 had registered just before the end of June. Unfortunately, though, the government has not released numbers of how many of those have been accepted, nor the number of those now officially considered foreigners living in the country illegally. And so it’s unknown how many Dominicans of Haitian descent will now face deportation. In the meantime, Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detention and roundups, including that of 30 Dominican-Haitians who had documentation.Buses rove the countryside, deciding whom to interrogate based on skin color—blackness also determines who is dropped off on Haiti’s side of the two nations’ shared border. Haiti already hosts a camp for incoming deportees, and nongovernmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration in Haiti and the Haitian group GARRexpect a flood—beyond the 14,000 who have already reportedly arrived—once the mass deportations begin.
Beyond the problems for Dominicans of Haitian descent, the government’s deportation sweeps have ripped apart the country’s social fabric. The measures have bred suspicion that anyone who appears Haitian could be taken any day—a fear that has deeply affected everyday life in towns where Haitian Dominicans have been a part of the social and economic makeup for generations. Haitians are the largest ethnic migrant group in the Dominican Republic, providing vital labor for the nation’s agriculture and tourism industries. Without them, the country’s economy will suffer. Furthermore, those subject to deportation live in a state of limbo, unable to work in the formal economy, enroll in school, or participate fully in civic life.
Although the court’s ruling and the government’s subsequent naturalization program has struck many as a cruel surprise, the racism and antagonism behind the decision are deeply rooted in Dominican racial politics, which go back decades and exploded most violently in 1937 under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. He initiated a massacre of an estimated 20,000 people of mostly Haitian descent, in what became known as “the Parsley Massacre.” Trujillo’s soldiers patrolled border towns, asking residents to identify a sprig of parsley. Those who could pronounce perejil (parsley) correctly were spared. Those who could not were killed on suspicion of Haitian heritage. This legacy of violence continued under Trujillo’s rule through anti-Haitian propaganda, popular discourse, and state policy, such as racially targeted civil detentions. Later incidents of violence, including a recent lynching in February 2015, show that the discrimination against—indeed dehumanization of—Haitians in the Dominican Republic remained.
With this history in mind, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Dominican court’s controversial decision, which provoked the Dominican court to rule that the nation had never fully ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. In effect, the Dominican Republic was saying that the Inter-American Court’s opinion didn’t matter. In truth, the Dominican Republic had ratified the convention in 1978; the court ruling relied on circuitous logic and a disingenuous reading of facts. In any case, the Dominican Republic had, until that time, complied with the Inter-American Court’s system. Its about-face came as the system itself has also come under attack from the populist and socialist governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela—states that have chafed under a series of cases and reports by the court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (effectively the lower body to the court) over violations of political and civil rights.
Nonetheless, despite broad international condemnation of the naturalization program, the majority of Dominican citizens support the policy, arguing that the country is unduly burdened by Haitian immigrants who deprive nationals of resources and jobs. Such arguments are, of course, familiar to opponents of immigration the world over. Yet in this case, the narrative is more complicated: it is based on long-standing racism and violence against those of Haitian descent, and it now involves an unprecedented judicial decision to retroactively strip citizenship from those who already got it—many of whom came to the nation to fill its demand for labor.
The Organization of American States, the 34-member regional multilateral body, is planning to send a mission to monitor the implementation of these policies and the deportation of Dominicans of Haitian descent. In the meantime, though, Human Rights Watch has called for the Dominican Republic to reinstate citizenship for those currently in limbo and stop expulsions. In response, Medina has vehemently rejected the findings in the report, accusing Human Rights Watch of disrespecting and damaging the nation. For now, immigration buses continue to prowl the streets, demanding the papers of those of darker skin. And when those who are questioned cannot produce them, they are rounded up and sent across the border to the hemisphere’s least-developed country, one that is still reeling from the 2010 earthquake and an ongoing political crisis over parliamentary elections.
The Dominican government has defended its policies so far as a matter of national sovereignty, arguing that it is within its rights to enforce laws and protect itself from those it deems a burden on the economy. Besides, it points out, it is not alone in its policies, an argument given some credence by recent comments and policy initiatives in the United States and Europe to curb the flow of immigrants. But the brazenness of the Dominican Republic has gone far beyond even the most extreme proposals in Western countries. The deportation of Dominican citizens with Haitian heritage puts the country far out of step with regional and international human rights communities. Sadly, with little organized political resistance to the policies (other than from grass-roots organizations) in the Dominican Republic, the country’s political leadership does not seem to care.