[Episcopal News Service – Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic] A large crowd gathered to meet Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in mid-December at Holy Cross Church in Santa Fe, in what was once the heart of the Dominican Republic’s sugarcane producing region in San Pedro Macoris.
Jefferts Schori would later preach, but first she was scheduled to have a conversation with the immigrant community about its experience in the wake of a 2013 Constitutional Court sentence that annulled the citizenship of an estimated 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, many of them women and children.
“The current reality is that there are generations of people with Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic; children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren born in the DR who now have been told that they are not citizens, which means that now they can’t get passports (or) cellphones because they don’t have identification numbers,” said Jefferts Schori, in an interview with Episcopal News Service. “In a number of cases their birth records have been expunged or declared invalid. They can’t go to school, they can’t go to university, they can’t get loans; they simply can’t function in the normal areas of society.
“They are not just undocumented, they are ‘de-documented.’ ”
The court’s 2013 ruling came three years after the Dominican Republic changed its constitution removing jus soli, the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to nationality or citizenship – an almost universal right in the Americas. The 2013 sentence, or ruling, furthered the constitutional change, making it retroactive to 1929 and stripping the citizenship of three generations of people born in the Dominican Republic.
“The de-nationalization imposed by the sentence is an act of injustice, an iniquity; they are Dominicans that have been dispossessed by the sentence,” said Dominican Republic Bishop Julio Holguín, who from the start has been involved with a solidarity committee of lawyers, activists and academics who’ve condemned the court’s action and defended the rights of those affected.
“As a church we feel very committed and obligated to be the voice of those who don’t have a voice.”
Eight months after the sentence, in May 2014, following intense political pressure and international calls for justice, the president introduced and the Dominican Congress passed a law allowing children of “irregular” migrants, or non-residents deemed “in-transit” under a 2004 law who have birth certificates, to become citizens and those without to apply for legal residency and later citizenship.
The May 2014 law would apply to about 20,000 people, which critics say falls short.
Without a birth certificate, a person cannot obtain an identification card, which is required to study, to apply for dignified employment, to marry, to register children, to qualify for state health insurance and pensions, to open a bank account, to apply for a passport, to participate in elections, or even to be baptized.
Obtaining a birth certificate, however, can be an arbitrary, expensive process in the Dominican Republic, given the current right-leaning, anti-immigrant sentiment percolating in advance of presidential elections in 2016. It’s an already arduous task in a developing country with irregular record-keeping procedures made more difficult in small towns and rural areas where workers continue to live in bateyes – the informal communities that grew up around the sugarcane plantations where Haitian migrants typically lived and where poor, marginalized people continue to live long after the sugarcane industry’s crash.
Back at Holy Cross Church, one young woman, Linda, a 24-year-old mother of two, shared her story of living without a birth certificate and thus an ID, which is necessary for her to continue her education and to register the births of her children, a 7-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, both born in the Dominican Republic, one to a Dominican father, the other to a Haitian.
Linda held documents from the secretary of education saying she couldn’t continue her night school studies without a birth certificate, a photocopy of her mother’s identification card issued by the Dominican government in 2005, and a “to whom it may concern” letter signed and stamped with the seal of a Roman Catholic parish confirming her birth in 1990 and her mother’s identity.
Without a lawyer to assist her in navigating the bureaucracy and what activists, lawyers and members of the Diocese of the Dominican Republic’s Pastoral Committee on Immigration describe as an arbitrary process, Linda’s life and that of her two children will likely remain in limbo.
Others in similar situations or with affected family members in the crowd of more than 250 people were fearful of sharing their story publicly. Following the meeting, however, outside the church during the Eucharist, they came forward in the hope of finding some assistance. Like Linda, many were looking to legitimize their residency in order to study, to work in the formal economy and provide a better life for their families. Without a birth certificate and a nationality, they are stateless, “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law.”
An estimated 10 million people are stateless worldwide, many of them made so by war and others because of economic migration, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which in 2014 launched a 10-year campaign aimed at eradicating statelessness.
In addition to UNHCR, statelessness has caught the attention of the International Anglican Family Network, which supports the campaign for universal birth registration, meaning it supports global efforts to ensure compliance in countries that recognize the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Dominican Republic is party to the convention and therefore agreed to Article 7 which says children have a right to be registered immediately following birth and have a right to nationality, particularly where they otherwise might be stateless.
That said, the United Nations has resisted taking formal action against the Dominican Republic, which is not a party to either the 1954 nor the 1961 conventions on statelessness; and the country has ignored previous international legal attempts to protect the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent.
In 2005, after seven years of litigation, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Dominican Republic to grant birth certificates, and thereby citizenship, to two Dominican-born girls of Haitian descent.
The court concluded that the Dominican Republic had “violated the rights of children of Haitian ancestry and rendered them stateless by refusing to issue their birth certificates because of their race.” Further, the ruling required the Dominican government to reform public policy to address historic discrimination in its birth registration procedures – to issue birth certificates to children regardless of their immigration status or the race of their birth parents, as well as to reform the education system.
In a press release issued immediately following the October 2005 court decision, one of the plaintiffs predicted the historical significance of the decision.
“This watershed decision will change the Dominican Republic just as Brown v. Board changed the United States,” said Laurel Fletcher, the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
It did not.
In 2007 the Central Electoral Board, which in addition to organizing and monitoring elections oversees the country’s national identification program, implemented a resolution limiting access to birth certificates and government identification cards to Dominicans of Haitian descent. Recently, Holguín and other members of the solidarity committee held a press conference on Jan. 14 denouncing a recent decision by the electoral board to invalidate the IDs of 2 million people, “continuing the work initiated by the 2007 ruling.”
Years of legislative changes and administrative policies aimed at limiting access to citizenship have further complicated an already complicated, unjust system.
“The justice issues are enormous. The human rights courts in Latin America have ruled this is illegal and have told the DR that it has to change its laws. But thus far the administration in the DR has resisted all such efforts by changing the interpretation of the law, denying that they have exceeded to the human rights covenants in Latin America. It’s not clear that there is going to be any real resolution, quickly,” said Jefferts Schori, during her mid-December visit.
“It’s also apparent that if people have the financial resources to litigate, they often can get relief. But it’s often very expensive and it takes a long time and clearly many people in the working class simply can’t manage it.”
Numerically, the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is the largest in The Episcopal Church; the Diocese of the Dominican Republic is one of the fastest growing dioceses in Province IX, which covers Latin America. Following the Constitutional Court’s 2013 decision, Executive Council suggested the presiding bishop travel to the Dominican Republic on a fact-finding mission.
Through her visit, which included briefings from the diocese’s pastoral committee; a visit to Centro Bonó, a Jesuit-sponsored nongovernment organization; and informal conversations with journalists, academics and lawyers, who described the situation “as a threat to democracy,” the presiding bishop hoped to make the larger church aware of the situation in the Dominican Republic.
“Certainly education helps people be better advocates with their own legislators. I think our own government has some ability to apply pressure on the Dominican Government. I think the change will come from international pressure,” said Jefferts Schori.
“Trade relationships between the DR, the US and other developed nations are increasing and at some point the economic pressure, the economic and political pressure, is most likely to have an effect.”
Not unlike the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants who have crossed the border into the United States to find work, an estimated 1 million Haitians have crossed the 170-mile border separating Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The similarities don’t end there: Recently minors have been crossing the border in record numbers, and tensions have flared after Haitian fishermen were arrested in Dominican waters near Pedernales, the southern-most border town on the Caribbean Sea.
“Occasionally conflicts arise on the border. Particularly when it is opened to make way for traders on both sides to sell their products,” said Holguín, adding that in this case there were protests outside the Dominican consulate in Haiti. The protest stopped following the fishermen’s release. And that many Haitians cross the border during the holidays, which increases traffic and the potential for conflict.
Additionally, months of ongoing violent protests in Haiti – calling for long-delayed elections and the president’s resignation – and the Haitian parliament’s recent dissolution have further created tension on both sides of the border.
“The political situation in Haiti has become difficult … which worries some sectors on the Dominican side,” Holguín.
Colonization and history of Hispaniola
The Dominican Republic, population 10.4 million, and Haiti, population 10.3 million, share the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic occupying approximately the eastern two-thirds and Haiti the western third of the island. Hispaniola is the second largest of the Greater Antilles’ four islands and the only one shared by two nations.
In 1492, explorer Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola in what would become Haiti; a year he later established the first permanent European settlement on the island in what is now the Dominican Republic. The Spanish colonized the island and ruled it until the French claimed the western part, Haiti, in 1660. During centuries of colonial rule the Spanish and the French exploited the island’s natural resources. When labor ran short, the French imported millions of African slaves to work Haiti’s sugarcane and tobacco plantations in what was considered by far the richest colony in the Caribbean. When the slaves rebelled, Haiti became an independent nation in 1804, and the Dominican Republic, then known as Santo Domingo, followed in 1821.
A year later the Haitian army invaded and the two countries were governed by Haiti until 1844, a 22-year occupation portrayed as “harsh and oppressive” that continues to fuel tensions and anti-Haitian sentiments today. On February 27, annually, Dominicans celebrate independence not from Spain, but from Haiti.
Independence in Haiti and the Dominican Republic did not, however, bring about stable democracy. Instead it gave rise to dictatorships, and eventually the likes of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and Rafael “El Jefe” Trujillo, the latter ordering the massacre of between 9,000 and 20,000 Haitians living along the border in October 1937.
The massacre and Trujillo’s denigrating portrayal of the Haitian people have left a stain on Dominican-Haitian relations, say historians, politicians and others.
The rise in sugarcane production
Beginning in the 1870s and into the 1880s sugar production began to develop on an industrial scale in the Dominican Republic. Haitians eventually dominated its migrant labor workforce; by 1952 the two countries came to a bilateral agreement ensuring a continuing supply of Haitian workers to meet the seasonal demands of sugarcane production.
At one time, there were eight major sugarcane plantations near Santa Fe, where the presiding bishop visited.
“Many, many Haitians came to work in the DR in the sugar industry under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo,” said Jefferts Schori.
The arrangement was similar to the bracero program in the United States, which ensured a steady stream of manual laborers from Mexico from 1942 to 1964.
“When the sugar industry collapsed and the labor was no longer needed, the Haitians stayed,” she said.
The Rev. Alvaro Yepes, a member of the diocese’s pastoral community who serves at the Camp of the Mount of the Transfiguration in El Pedregal, said at least 10 members of his community lack birth certificates. Aside from offering prayers and pastoral counseling, he’s frustrated by what little else he can do for them, he said.
“It’s easy to say we are all children of God, but hard to put into practice” when not all members of society are treated equally, said Yepes. He said that, for political reasons, the government often stirs resentments between Dominicans and those perceived to be Haitian immigrants.
In times of crisis, the Dominican Republic has responded generously to Haiti. Given its proximity, it was the first country to respond following the Jan. 12, 2010, catastrophic earthquake that killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people and leveled parts the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and nearby Léogâne. The Dominican Republic provided emergency assistance, organized volunteers, and most significantly, opened the border restrictively at Jimani, 40 miles east of Port-au-Prince, to Haitians fleeing disaster.
An estimated 1 million Haitians fled to the Dominican Republic, doubling the size of the immigrant population. Of the 2 million Haitians living the Dominican Republic, 70,000 were there legally, according to Human Rights Watch data.
Shared border, shared struggles
Haiti is classified as a low-income country where 58.5 percent of the population lives in poverty; in comparison, the Dominican Republic is classified as an upper-middle-income country, with 40.9 percent of the population living in poverty, according to data from the World Bank.
Both the Haitian and the Dominican economies depend on wages earned by immigrants working abroad and sent back to support families in-country. Remittances make up 7.3 percent of the Dominican economy and 21.1 percent of the Haitian economy, according to World Bank data.
“When our economic system depends on the transportability and the ability of people who want to work to move, as well as the need for people to move for lack of opportunity or (because of) violence, state violence or non-state violence, we’re faced with a recognition that our ancient ways of doing things no longer function,” said Jefferts Schori. “Look at the Philippines: Its economy depends on its migrant labor (and) that’s increasingly true of some nations in Latin America.”
The Dominican Republic has recently ranked consistently among the fastest-growing economies in the world, averaging a 5.5 increase in gross domestic product annually for 20 years. The labor market, however, has remained stagnant, with workers largely employed in low-wage jobs or in the informal economy, according to studies.
In that same two-decade period, remittances – wages transferred home by migrant workers – rose steadily peaking at 11.4 percent of GDP in 2004, and dropping to 6.5 percent in 2011; income inequality has increased in the last decade.
That the economy grows but demand for labor and wages remains stagnant stokes the fires of resentment, which have increases noticeably since 2013, said Franklin Paula, who teaches English at an Episcopal school in Santa Cruz.
There have been demonstrations in response to incidents perceived to be racially motivated, a May 2014 flag burning, for instance, said Paula, who was born in the Dominican Republic but whose family is from Antigua.
And Haitians, he said, who come to the Dominican Republic speaking two or three languages, often are preferred hires at the resorts that cater to European and American tourists, which leads to further resentment among low-wage Dominican workers.
— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.