Children of Haitians find themselves in legal limbo in Dominican Republic

Court ruling could lead to some 450,000 people being declared illegal

Dominicans of Haitian origin hold a protest over court's decision.
Dominicans of Haitian origin hold a protest over court's decision.Juan Carlos González

For all legal purposes, Juliana Deguis Pierre, who has lived all her 29 years in Dominican Republic, can no longer be considered a Dominican national.

Since the Constitutional Court in Santo Domingo handed down a controversial ruling last month that affects thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, indignation has been pouring in from the United Nations and other international bodies, including the Caribbean Community (Caricom), which is studying whether to welcome Dominican Republic as a full-fledged member.

But the local court’s decision has completely overlooked a prior, far-reaching ruling by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR). In 2005, the regional panel condemned the Dominican government for violating the right to equality by denying nationality to a girl, Dilicia Yean, and a young woman, Violeta Bosico, who were both born in Dominican Republic to Haitian parents.

While the Dominican government acknowledged the error four years before the regional court’s ruling was handed down, the IACHR demanded that the country adopt “necessary measures to regulate the process and requisites conducive to acquiring Dominican nationality.”

Since then, the country’s Constitutional Court has decided otherwise. On September 23, the top court ruled that from 1929, anyone who was born in Dominican Republic of foreign-born parents, and who cannot prove that their mother or father were in the country legally at the time of their birth, cannot be considered Dominican nationals.

Many believe that the ruling is aimed squarely at ethnic Haitians who live in Dominican Republic, even though they were born and grew up in the country.

The United Nations called on the government of President Danilo Medina to take all necessary measures to ensure that citizens of Haitian origin are not deprived of their right to nationality.

“We are extremely concerned that a ruling of Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court may deprive tens of thousands of people of nationality, virtually all of them of Haitian descent, and have a very negative impact on their other rights,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights told reporters in Geneva.

The decision came as a result of a case filed by Juliana Deguis Pierre against the Central Electoral Board – which also acts as a civil registry – after the agency had refused since 2007 to issue her an official identification card.

“I was raised here, and I have never left this country,” said Juliana, who was born and still lives in the small township of Los Jovillos in Yamasá municipality, located less than two hours away from the capital. Despite the facts that she doesn’t speak Haitian Creole and doesn’t even know how to travel to the adjoining country, her children cannot be registered in school.

Los Jovillos is a cane-cutting community where more than 20 families of Haitian origin live.

I was raised here, and I have never left this country”

Juliana has a Dominican birth certificate which was given to her father by the civil registry after he presented his State Sugar Council (CEA) workers’ identification card. In 2007, when Juliana attained adulthood, she applied for her first Dominican national ID card but the civil registry denied her application and confiscated her papers on suspicions that her two last names seemed Haitian in origin.

The Dominican court sided with government lawyers in the argument that the doctrine of jus soli (Latin, for right of soil), which gives the right to nationality or citizenship to anyone born within a territory or a country and was incorporated into the Constitution in 1929, doesn’t cover the children of foreign diplomats or those who are classified as being “in transit” through the country.

Dominican government officials see the ruling as a legal weapon to fight the ongoing problem of illegal immigration from the impoverished nation that shares Hispaniola Island with Dominican Republic.

“Judicial authorities have interpreted that anyone who doesn’t have residency papers is considered to be ‘in transit,’ which is a grammatically wrong interpretation,” said Genaro Rincón, one of the lawyers representing Socio-Cultural Movement of Haitian Workers (Mosctha), which is headquartered in Santo Domingo.

But others like Dominican lawyer Juan Miguel Castillo, who sides with the Constitutional Court’s ruling, believes that Juliana Deguis Pierre, now 29, and her descendants should be considered foreigners.

“Not everyone understands legal terminology because you need a certain level of education to understand such things,” Castillo told EL PAÍS. “This debate has disintegrated into a battle of opinions. But from a legal-academic viewpoint, the ruling is impeccable, very fair, and very courageous.”

Nasser Perdomo, another lawyer who specializes in constitutional law, argues that the ruling is fundamentally flawed. “What the court needed to look at was whether these people are Dominicans based on the Dominican Constitution that was in effect at the moment of their birth, but the court didn’t do that except to come with a defective analysis over the concept of ‘in transit’ and at the same time applied a retroactive law that has been annulled by human rights courts.”

Legal experts believe that close to 650,000 citizens could be affected by this decision and considered to have been “in transit” for the past eight decades.

The ruling has prompted waves of protest across Dominican Republic, and in New York City, which has the largest Dominican population outside the island.

Since the time the United States occupied Haiti (from 1915 to 1934), Haitian cane cutters have been instrumental for the growth of Dominican Republic’s sugar industry. Today, there are four giant sugar mills which each need about 5,000 laborers to keep running efficiently. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Haitians have crossed over from the border and more recently the manpower is used in the construction industry. The Dominican government has assisted in this migration by issuing work permits.

Senate Speaker Pared Pérez criticized the international community, especially the Haitian government, for trying to distract attention from the very real problems facing the neighboring country. “What the Constitutional Court decided is within the sovereign right of Dominican Republic,” he said.

On October 17, the day the ruling was handed down, Caricom in a statement said that the decision goes against the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

“The Caribbean Community is particularly concerned about the humanitarian implications of the judgment. The implications of tens of thousands of persons being plunged into a constitutional, legal and administrative vacuum by the ruling are a source of deep distress to those affected and one of significant disquiet for our community,” Caricom said.

Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who serves as Caricom chairwoman, said that at least two of the 15 members on the regional body – Guyana and San Vincent and the Grenadines – have come out against Dominican Republic’s full membership. The Spanish-speaking nation currently holds observer status in the regional trade and political organization.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS