Dominico-Haitians: Stateless in the Dominican Republic

  • Posted on: 29 May 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Imagine being born in a country that doesn't recognize you and the possibility of being deported to one that you don't even know.  This is a very real possibility for individuals of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.  Being denied the right to nationality has serious implications ranging from denial of health care, the right to vote, or even the right to work and own property.  Human rights activists in the DR such as Sonia Pierre have put their lives on the line to make things better. The issue is, thankfully, receiving more publicity than it ever has before.  Below is an article by the New York Times which describes what statelessness is as well as a piece by Refugees International and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center which explains what can be done to remedy this situation.  

NYT - Two obsessions define this country: baseball and Haiti. Angel Luis Joseph, a teenage outfielder with a hot bat, is caught between Dominicans' devotion to the one and disdain for the other.  So many major leaguers have emerged from this sugar town that agents keep an eye on even pint-size players with potential. Angel, 17, was only a lanky grade school boy when his coach noticed he showed all the signs of becoming a standout. Before long, the San Francisco Giants came calling with a $350,000 offer, he said.


But then politics interfered with his dream. To obtain a visa to the United States, Angel went to a local government office to get a copy of his birth certificate. Little did he know that the Dominican government had recently begun a crackdown on the children of Haitian immigrants, even those like him who have lived their whole lives in the Dominican Republic.   ''If your last name is weird, they won't give you your documents,'' he said. ''Same thing if your skin is dark like mine.'' Angel's request for his birth record was denied, prompting the Giants to withdraw the offer.


His parents, like hundreds of thousands of others, moved from Haiti to the Dominican Republic in the 1970s to work in the sugar cane fields. Their children were born in the Dominican Republic, grew up here and became, in their eyes at least, full-fledged Dominicans. They speak Spanish, dance merengue and play ''pelota,'' the popular name for the Dominican pastime baseball.  ''They don't play baseball in Haiti,'' said Melanie Teff, who has studied the issue for Refugees International, an advocacy group in Washington. ''That shows how Dominican this guy and many people like him are.''  The government does not necessarily agree, and Angel awaits a ruling on his appeal for access to his Dominican birth record.


The issue arose with a fury several years ago when advocates took the government to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, whose jurisdiction the Dominican Republic acknowledges, to protest the denial of birth certificates to two ethnic Haitian children. While the case was in process, the government changed its migration law in 2004 to specifically exclude the offspring of Haitian migrants from citizenship. The Dominican Constitution grants citizenship to those born on Dominican soil, except the children of diplomats and those ''in transit.'' That has long meant that the children of immigrants, no matter their legal status, gained Dominican citizenship.


After the international court ruled against the Dominican government in 2005, ordering that damages be paid to the two children, the Dominican Supreme Court said that Haitian workers were considered ''in transit'' and that their children were therefore Haitian, not Dominican.  Last spring, the government agency in charge of identity documents, the Joint Electoral Council, issued a memorandum telling its employees to watch for the offspring of foreigners trying to identify themselves as Dominican. It now hangs at every clerk's office and is shown to people thought to have Haitian blood.


''The issue of Haiti has become very combustible in the Dominican context,'' said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a research group in Washington. ''You have a deep resentment of Haiti, and that's driving these responses that don't reflect favorably on the country.'' Government officials point out the strain that poor illegal immigrants from Haiti put on the Dominican Republic. The two countries share the island of Hispaniola but have vastly different levels of development.


Of course, Haitians contribute, too. They have long worked in the jobs Dominicans did not want to do, mostly cutting cane on plantations that supply sugar to the United States. The government has not just known of their presence for decades but has in some cases encouraged their arrival.  The Dominican government says the new crackdown is a security matter, aimed at wiping out fraud. And in some cases over the years, young Haitians who had crossed the border illegally claimed to have been born on the Dominican side.


But opponents accuse the government of applying its 2004 law retroactively, which they call an illegal practice that has longstanding societal animosity against Haitians at its heart.  ''The racist beliefs of some are being used to twist our laws,'' said Cristobal Rodriguez Gomez, a Dominican constitutional law professor at Ibero-American University, who is acting as counsel for another descendant of Haitians who lacks documents. ''This is a crime, a monstrous crime.''


In a recent report, two United Nations experts found ''a profound and entrenched problem of racism and discrimination'' in the Dominican Republic, mostly affecting people of Haitian origin. The report said Haitians and their descendants face ''extreme vulnerability, unjustified deportations, racial discrimination, and are denied the full enjoyment of their human rights.'' The Dominican government rejected the conclusions, portraying the relationship between the neighbors as one of solidarity.


Angel is one of many who find their lives in limbo under the new rules. Emildo Bueno Oguis, 33, a college student who recently married an American woman, could not get his birth certificate either and therefore cannot apply to the American Embassy for residency to join her in Florida. Mr. Oguis, whom Mr. Rodriguez represents, challenged the government's decision in court, accusing the council of denying his rights. But his claim was rejected, despite the fact that he had previously been issued a Dominican identity card and a Dominican passport.


Confusing the matter, a lower court judge ruled in favor of another descendant of Haitian immigrants, Nuny Angra Luis, who had been denied her birth certificate. That decision was announced the same week in April as the other, diametrically opposed ruling. Demetrio F. Francisco de Los Santos, a government lawyer, dismisses the notion that anyone's rights are being violated. Descendants of Haitians, he argues in court documents, can simply go to the nearest Haitian consulate for their documents.


While Haitian law does grant citizenship to the offspring of Haitians, the issue is complex. Angel's parents would have to prove they are Haitian for him to get citizenship in Haiti, a country which he has never visited. While some are indignant about the Dominican crackdown, Angel seems surprisingly calm. Before a recent practice, in which he flagged fly balls and then fired them into the infield, Angel said his mother could not sleep after he lost the Giants contract. (''Angel Luis Joseph is one of a number of players in the Dominican that clubs are finding do not have the proper paperwork to prove their identity or age,'' the Giants said in a statement, indicating that the team had been forced to look for someone else.)


Angel may have another shot. The Cleveland Indians have come calling, he said, visiting the humble shack that he shares with his parents and seven siblings just outside a sugarcane field.  The Indians' offer was about a third of that put forward by the Giants, but still a windfall for a boy from a batey, the name for the workers' camps that grow up around sugar cane plantations. But while he awaits a ruling, he acknowledges worrying that he will see his dream disappear a second time. ''God wants me to be a baseball player -- that I know,'' he said. What he does not know is whether the Dominican Republic, the country he considers himself from, agrees


Time to Move Forward to Resolve Statelessness (RI/RFK Memorial Center)


On May 16, President Leonel Fernandez won a further term in office using the electoral slogan "Pa'lante" ("moving forward") with a campaign message of modernization and development for the country. But the Dominican Republic is not utilizing all its human resources to move forward. An illegal retroactive application of nationality laws is leaving increasing numbers of Dominicans of Haitian descent functionally stateless. Hundreds of thousands of people are left in legal limbo and, in practice, most of them now have no access to either Dominican or Haitian nationality. This issue must be resolved if the country truly wants to modernize and develop.


The Dominican Constitution states that all children born on Dominican territory are Dominican citizens, apart from children of diplomats and children of people "in transit". Because "in transit" was defined in the previous Dominican migration law as being in the country less than ten days, children of foreigners born in the Dominican Republic have had the right to Dominican nationality. Children of Haitian origin were often denied this right in practice, but the right existed. Many Haitian migrants did in fact register their children born in the Dominican Republic, using the temporary worker's card ("ficha") issued to them by the former state sugar company. Dominican registry offices accepted the "ficha" as proof of a parent's residence in the country and registry offices granted birth certificates and identity cards to children who then grew up as Dominican citizens.


In 2004 the Dominican Republic passed a new migration law which re-defined "in transit" as not being a legal resident, a definition which was rejected by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a 2005 judgment. Regardless, this new definition cannot be applied to people born before the 2004 Migration Law came into force as it is prohibited under international and Dominican law to apply legislation retroactively. Yet, on a recent mission to the country, Refugees International and the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights met 25 people, and heard about the cases of hundreds more, who had been issued documents by Dominican registry offices which were now "under investigation," which in practice means they cannot use their documents for essential activities requiring proof of citizenship.


The following are three examples of people who grew up as Dominican citizens but are now "under investigation" because of their Haitian ancestry:  Ángel is a talented baseball player and was offered a contract by the US baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. Officials at the registry office refused his request for an official copy of his full birth certificate, informing him that his documents are under investigation because he is of Haitian origin. Since he could not get a passport, he lost the contract with the Giants.   Altagracia is a good student who cannot go to university because the registry office refused her request for an official copy of her birth certificate. The office informed her that it was because her surname is Haitian.  Teresa was refused a birth certificate for her 6-month-old baby because of her Haitian surname. She had registered her first 3 children previously without problems.Refugees International Advocate Melanie Teff and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights Program Officer Marselha Gonçalves Margerin assessed the situation of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic in May 2008 and also participated as election observers.


All of these people were born in the Dominican Republic and had been issued Dominican birth certificates and identity documents by Dominican registry offices.  There are also many cases of refusals of identity card renewal applications by Dominicans of Haitian descent. In 2004, for administrative reasons, the Central Electoral Board extended all identity cards scheduled to expire in 2006 for two years to June 2008. Therefore, in June hundreds of thousands of identity cards will need to be renewed. Serious concerns exist about what will happen when Dominicans of Haitian descent seek to renew their identity cards.


In March 2007 the Dominican government issued Circular No. 17, a directive requiring registry offices to investigate any birth certificates that had been issued "irregularly" to children of foreigners "who had not proved their legal residence or status in the Dominican Republic ." In practice this circular is being used to de-nationalize Haitians' descendants, as registry offices are equating being of Haitian descent with fraud. At present these investigations lack due process. People are not informed that their documents are "under investigation," so they have no opportunity to appeal the decision. Most find out by chance when they request official copies of birth certificates and are refused because of the alleged "investigation." It is still unclear how many people are currently in this legal limbo.


Dominican officials have stated that it is too expensive to notify individuals that their cases are under investigation. Under international law lack of resources is not accepted as an excuse for a state to deny due process to individuals. If the Dominican Republic is going to carry out investigations that can potentially result in the loss of a person's nationality, it must inform them in writing, and allow an effective right of appeal to a court. Under Dominican law only a judge can investigate the validity of identity documents and make a determination of Dominican nationality, not registry offices or the Central Electoral Board.


Descendants of Haitians who live in the Dominican Republic do not all have access to Haitian nationality, despite the Dominican government's over-simplified claims to the contrary. Under the Haitian Constitution and Haiti 's 1984 law on nationality, the following groups of people of Haitian origin born outside of Haiti will not have automatic access to Haitian nationality:  Children of Haitian asylum-seekers and refugees, since their parents have "renounced their nationality." Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Haitians, since their parents have to be "native-born Haitians."   Children who have only one parent who is Haitian.   Children of Haitian parents who do not have identity documents (without which they cannot prove they are "native-born Haitians"). Few Haitians in the Dominican Republic have identity documents because Haitian civil registry offices have barely functioned for years. People previously registered as citizens of other countries and who now wish to recover their Haitian nationality; they must reside in Haiti for five years, before applying for naturalization. In addition, many Dominicans of Haitian ancestry have no connection to Haiti . Having grown up in Dominican culture, they speak Spanish and may not speak Haitian Creole, and Haiti is a foreign country to them.


The 2004 Migration Law requires the government to develop a regularization plan that would give citizenship or legal residence to "non-residents" who meet certain requirements. This would not apply to Dominicans of Haitian origin, but to Haitian migrants. The Dominican government has not yet produced a regularization plan. It should do so without further delay and should consult with affected communities concerning its formulation.



The Dominican Government:

1) Stop the retroactive application of the 2004 Migration Law;

2) Ensure that any investigation into identity documents is conducted with due process, with written notice to individuals and a right of appeal to a court;

3) Formulate a regularization plan in consultation with affected communities.

4) The international community, and particularly the US Government:

5) Urge the Dominican government to comply with its international legal obligations ensuring that any document investigation is conducted following due process without retroactive application of the law and avoiding the creation of statelessness.


Donor governments:

1) Ensure that people without identity documents are not excluded from social programs they are supporting in the Dominican Republic .


Refugees International Advocate Melanie Teff and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights Program Officer Marselha Gonçalves Margerin assessed the situation of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic in May 2008 and also participated as election observers.

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