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Defining Citizenship in the Dominican Republic

By Jon Anderson

Years ago, while covering the plight of Dominican cane cutters, most of whom come from Haiti, I met one who eloquently lamented the segregation, not all that different from Apartheid, which kept them in a perpetual state of limbo.  These cutters work under intolerable conditions, in the direst poverty, wresting from the earth the stubbornly rooted cane that gives us one of our basic commodities: sugar.  His lament ended with these succinct words: “we are equal; we all have the same blood.”  The story of stateless Dominicans of Haitian descent is one of blood and soil shared in common.

 A humanitarian crisis over the definition of citizenship has culminated in an equivocal ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal concerning a long-standing tenet of the Dominican Constitution.  In a review of a decision rendered in a Monte Plata court against Juliana Dequis Pierre, the court denied her Dominican nationality on the grounds that she was born to “foreigners in transit.”  Thus, it confirmed a narrow interpretation of the troublesome wording of Article 18, clause 3 of the Dominican Constitution, which states,

Dominicans are those persons born in national territory, with the exception of the sons and daughters of foreign members of diplomatic legations and consulates, and of foreigners who are in transit or residing illegally in Dominican territory.  A person in transit is considered to be all foreigners defined as such by Dominican law.

Dominican citizenship is determined on the basis of jus soli (by right of the soil) rather than jus sanguinis (by right of blood).  However, the third clause uses an ill-defined phrase to allow an exception: a child born on Dominican soil to foreigners “in transit” is ineligible for citizenship.  If migrant laborers are considered “persons in transit,” their children forfeit Dominican nationality.  However, the workers who came and stayed from the Twenties on up to the Eighties or Nineties cannot be termed transients.

 The government, the courts, humanitarian agencies and a host of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been arguing for years over the definition of the words “in transit.”  If a Haitian cutter entered Dominican territory and settled in a plantation community, (batey) run by one of the sugar companies, staying for years, and establishing a family, can he be said to have been “in transit”?  Can his offspring be considered transients if they were born, raised and employed on Dominican soil?  Generations of cane cutters were hired by the sugar companies, given temporary work permits, and allowed to stay, season after season.  Many were peremptorily rounded up and sent back across the border, only to be rehired the following year.  But many never left, and their permanent existence in the bateys was documented in song and literature.

 The catch, however, is that their existence was probably not documented in the Civil Registry.  Herein lies the hypocrisy of the court’s ruling.  Its entire thrust depends on the content of the Civil Registry.  The court has ordered the creation of a new set of registries that will normalize the status of resident foreigners.  The Central Electoral Board (JCE) is to carry out a detailed audit of births recorded in the Civil Registry from June 21, 1929 forward, in order to draw up a list of all the foreigners found therein.  Those foreigners whose existence in the Civil Registry is somehow “improper” will be added to a “List of Foreigners Improperly Listed in the Civil Registry of the Dominican Republic.”

 The court also ordered the creation of special annual registration books for the births of foreigners from June 21, 1929 until April 18, 2007 (the years predating the JCE’s implementation of the Registration Book of Children of Non-Resident Foreign Mothers in the Dominican Republic).  All births of improperly registered foreigners will be transferred to the new registration books..  Those deemed “improper” would be notified, as would their consulates, and compelled to comply with Article 151 of the Migration Law (285-04), which deals with the renewal of permanent residence status and the documentation required to procure it.

All this bureaucratic paper shuffling conveniently obscures the fact that these people are unlikely to have any valid documentation or even to have had their existence registered officially.  It begs the question: What constitutes “improper” registration?  The reform of the Civil Registry is a deliberate bit of casuistry.  The justices know that it is in chaos, and those whose fates are ruled by this decision have been clamoring for recognition precisely because the Registry has rendered them invisible legally.

 Anyone visiting a municipal office knows the ritual: after hours of waiting in line, the applicant files a claim that sends a clerk to excavate the paperwork from the moldering piles of binders filled with yellowing documents that have never been computerized and whose very existence is uncertain.  Those who are lucky enough to locate documents have been known to find notes attached that read “this person is Haitian.”  Moreover, the further back you go, fewer are the Dominicans of Haitian descent who can find any certification of their existence at all.  Something like thirty percent of the Dominican population has no legal documentation of their status.  (One of the ironies of deportations in the past is that Dominicans of Dominican descent – if we can call them such – have been swept up in the raids.) 

 As Diario Libre reported, the court “states that the implementation of the national plan of normalization of illegal foreigners with roots in the country will have positive repercussions for hundreds of thousands of foreigners, since it awards them a normalization of the migratory status.”  This equivocal statement can be read in two ways.  By regularizing the status of foreigners, the plan will indeed confirm one small group as legitimate recipients of citizenship – those who can provide the proper documentation.  But the much larger group of those who cannot will presumably be left in the limbo of improper registration.

Moreover, the plan is intended to prevent a new generation of unwanted children born on Dominican soil from claiming citizenship.  The Court has not only sealed the fate of past generations of migrant laborers but also nullified the claims of future generations whose labor contributes toward enabling the Dominican economy as well as modernizing its infrastructure.  The decision is not just retroactive; it is proactive.

They have done this because more worrisome to the government than the bateys is the existence of a vast new migrant labor force, whose presence is due in part to Leonel Fernández’s ambitious program of development.  The government is anxious to prevent future offspring of foreigners in transit from perpetuating the cycle that led to this crisis of stateless individuals.  The nation depends heavily on cheap, expendable Haitian labor for its construction projects as well as its agriculture, but the government wishes to keep the labor pool perpetually in a state of transience.

The remarkable size of the current wave of Haitian migration provokes concern.  Every state has the right to regulate immigration and define the terms whereby resident foreigners may acquire citizenship.  However, those who struggle, like the recently deceased Sonia Pierre, on behalf of stateless Dominicans do not seek to undermine that right.  The paranoid fear of a putative threat of Haitianization of the nation is unwarranted.  The nation has not been subverted by the descendants of Haitians, who in turn have been thoroughly Dominicanized.  The humanitarians are seeking only to ensure that people who have been born and raised on Dominican soil, and have lived their entire lives on it as Dominicans, be accorded the dignity and full rights of all those who contribute to the state.  Those whose being sprang from Dominican soil and whose bones will one day rest in it must be considered, legally as well as existentially, Dominican.

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Jon Anderson is a journalist whose documentary work on Dominican sugar plantations and the plight of Haitian migrant laborers during the past decade was supported by grants from the Open Society and the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which named him a Fellow in 2006

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]  

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