The Dominican Republic deported an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people of Haitian descent over three years. Those left behind live in a state of institutionalized terror.
This is a story about what happens when you limit birthright citizenship and stir up hate against a certain class of immigrants. It takes place in the Dominican Republic. Like most countries in the Americas, for a century and a
The Dominican Republic has long been dependent on a steady stream of cheap immigrant labor that cuts its sugar cane, builds its buildings, and staffs the beach resorts that draw in billions of foreign dollars a year. Almost all of that labor comes from the only country close enough, and poor enough, to have people who want to immigrate in large numbers to the Dominican Republic: its Hispaniolan twin, Haiti. Some working-class Dominicans without clear Haitian roots resent poorer neighbors willing to accept lower wages and tough conditions. Many wealthy Dominicans who profit wildly off the cheap labor supply are eager to have strict immigration laws in place, too—not because they want less immigration, but because they want a freer hand. Immigrants in the country illegally have no protection from workplace regulations and can be rounded up, deported, and replaced whenever convenient—including right before payday. (Sound familiar?)
The Dominican Republic also has a long, brutal history of anti-Haitian racism. During his rule from 1930 to 1961, the fascist dictator Rafael Trujillo built a racialized concept of Dominican national identity on the fuzzy idea that the descendants of Spanish slavery on the eastern part of the island had higher levels of European ancestry than, and thus were superior to, the descendants of French slavery on the western part of the island. This rhetoric led to a 1937 rampage in which Dominican soldiers and allied citizens massacred thousands of people who they identified as Haitians. They forcibly separated people who’d long mixed together in vaguely delineated borderlands, consecrating a new national boundary that had been set largely by the occupying U.S. military a few years earlier, but which until then existed mostly on paper.
In the decades that followed, Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic remained largely confined to isolated company towns in the cane fields, known as bateyes. But in the late 20th century, Haitian immigrants and their Dominican-born children left to work in other parts of the Dominican economy. Nationalists, who’d grown up learning Trujillo’s propaganda, began to rethink the law.
Because nationalists tend to be political conservatives, they often feel pressure to pretend that the radical changes they’re making aren’t changes at all. In the 1990s and early 2000s, right-wing Dominican politicians tried to stretch a tiny loophole in birthright citizenship into a chasm big enough to swallow anyone of Haitian descent. Their main strategy was to claim that everyone with Haitian roots was “in transit,” no matter how long they (or even their parents) had lived in the country. Authorities also refused to issue Haitians’ children birth certificates, or ripped up the ones they had. Sympathetic local media helped make synonymous the words ilegal, inmigrante (immigrant), extranjero (foreigner), and haitiano. Even foreign reporters got used to referring to people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic—an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the Dominican population—as “Haitian migrants,” even though that category includes an estimated 171,000 Dominican-born Dominicans with two Haitian parents, and another 81,000 people with one.
Courts did not like this. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Dominican government’s treatment of people of Haitian descent violated not only international human-rights law but also the Dominican constitution. Dominican presidents ignored the rulings, and ultimately pulled out of the treaty establishing the court. In 2010, the government called a constitutional convention, in large part to exclude a new group from the birthright-citizenship clause: the children of anyone “residing illegally in Dominican territory.” Given the spotty distribution of birth certificates, faulty census-taking, and lackluster registration efforts in the country’s impoverished areas, this change was bound to create widespread confusion. But the government’s target wasn’t poor people in general. It was people of Haitian descent.
Even that maneuver was not enough. Under all international or national norms, the new provision could only apply to people born after the new constitution came into force. But Dominican nationalists were more concerned about adults than newborns. Fortunately for them, the new loophole had a loophole: a new “constitutional tribunal”—separate from the existing supreme court—given the “definitive and irrevocable” right to interpret the constitution.
In one of its first acts, the tribunal justices—picked by former President Leonel Fernández and a small group of other leaders—took up the languishing case of a Dominican of Haitian descent named Juliana Deguis Pierre. She had sued when officials in her town refused to give her a national ID card—needed to vote and access social services—because, she said, of her dark skin and Haitian last name. Instead of ruling on whether she had been discriminated against, in 2013 the tribunal declared that Pierre should never have had citizenship in the first place because her parents didn’t have sufficient documentation to prove residency when she was born. Then it went even further, ruling that all those who could not prove that their parents had been legal residents when they were born—going all the way back to 1929, when the “in transit” exception was added to the constitution—were not citizens. Those affected were ordered to register with the government as foreigners by June 17, 2015.
Again, this order was clearly aimed at people of Haitian descent. Hundreds of thousands who had been Dominican citizens all their lives suddenly risked being rendered stateless and eligible for deportation.
It was obvious to human-rights groups, the United Nations, and pretty much anyone watching that the Dominican government was doing an end run around some of the most important principles of the rule of law—namely, that you can’t change the rules and then go around punishing people for having violated them in the past. The tribunal bent over backward to argue that nothing had
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