Humanitarian Crisis Looms in Dominican Republic as Undocumented Residents Face Deportation

A protest in Haiti against the court ruling in December 2013

A humanitarian crisis is looming in the Dominican Republic where thousands face statelessness and deportation because of the impending enforcement of a 2013 court decision to revoke the citizenship for many Dominican-born descendants of undocumented migrants.

Most countries do not grant birthright citizenship—that is, automatic citizenship to anyone born on national soil. In fact, only 30 of the world’s 194 nations do offer it. No European nations do.

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So in that regard the Dominican Republic did not breach international norms when its legislature decided to do away with birthright citizenship--a decision confirmed and even broadened by its contitutional court soon after. But in another respect it did step way out of line—by making the new law astonishingly retroactive. It revoked the citizenship of anyone born in the country after 1929—86 years ago—if their parents were undocumented immigrants or otherwise non-Dominicans.

As a result, it was hard not to suspect that the D.R. was trying to expel the country’s half a million Haitian-Dominicans—as many as four generations of whom suddenly found themselves stripped of legal status in the D.R. and subject to deportation, even if they had been born there.

And it was just as hard not to assume a racial motive, since almost all Haitians are black. Those concerns were backed by a long history in the D.R.—including the 1937 massacre of as many as 20,000 Haitian-Dominicans. That atrocity was ordered by then Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who had said he wanted to “re-whiten” the country.

The Dominican government vehemently denies the racism charge. But the birthright citizenship ban “raises again the question of an aversion to black people in the Dominican Republic,” Jean-Robert Lafortune, a Haitian-American leader in Miami, told me after the Dominican supreme court affirmed the citizenship law’s draconian provisions.

Facing international condemnation, the D.R. finally agreed last year to grant legal residency to those Haitian-Dominicans who could prove they have lived in the country since before October 2011. The deadline for submitting the legal documents is tonight, June 17, at 7 p.m.

But of course it is not that easy. As of yesterday, only a fraction of the 500,000 Haitian-Dominicans eligible had met the deadline. The rest were still scrambling to secure the paperwork—whose scarcity, say immigration advocates, is largely the fault of the Dominican government and Dominican employers. Both, they argue, have been too slow to issue the necessary identification and residency certificates.

Either way, those who fail to meet the deadline face deportation.

Meanwhile, critics say perhaps the most noticeably absent voice in all of this has been the Dominican Roman Catholic Church.

Rather than play a mediation role, as many had hoped he would, conservative Dominican Cardinal Nicolás López Rodríguez has come out stridently in favor of the new citizenship law. In 2013 he called its detractors “charlatans and liars.” And last year he called a Dominican Jesuit priest “a scoundrel” for calling on the Dominican church to defend Haitian-Americans.

In an ad limina meeting with Dominican bishops on May 28, Pope Francis touched on the crisis, encouraging Dominican bishops to expand their care for immigrants, especially those from neighboring Haiti, who come to the Dominican Republic in search of better living conditions. Pope Francis told them, “We must continue to cooperate with civil authorities to achieve solutions to the problems of those who are deprived of documents or denied their basic rights,” in a manner genuinely compatible with solidarity.

The pope added, "It is inexcusable not to promote initiatives of fraternity and peace between the two nations, which make up that beautiful Island of the Caribbean. It is important to be able to integrate the immigrants in the society and to receive them in the ecclesial community."

Tim Padgett, Latin America editor for NPR affiliate WLRN, is America’s Miami correspondent.

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