The Dominican Republic is right about one thing. The nations of the world are indeed moving away from birthright citizenship. In fact, only 30 of the world’s 194 countries today automatically grant citizenship to anyone born on their soil – and no European nations do.
Still, the Dominican Republic shouldn’t be so shocked that the world is chewing it out for the way it scuttled its own birthright citizenship privilege. The D.R.’s highest court, el Tribunal Constitucional, ruled in September that anyone born in that country after 1929 would have their citizenship revoked if their parents were undocumented immigrants or non-Dominicans. That potentially dumped almost half a million Haitian-Dominicans into a stateless purgatory.
The Dominican Republic – which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with predominantly black Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest nation – agreed this week to sit down with Haitian officials and discuss ways out of the crisis. But a solution will be difficult. In the meantime, Dominican society is fending off charges that it wants to get rid of Haitians. Meaning blacks.
“This move by the Dominicans has thrown the Caribbean into a state of panic,” says Jean-Robert Lafortune, chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami. “It is inhumane, unjust, and raises again the question of an aversion to black people in the Dominican Republic.”
Dominican leaders vehemently deny the accusation. “The image that’s been sold is that the court decision stripped Haitians of their rights,” Roberto Rosario, the Dominican elections chief who is now in charge of creating a residency legalization process in the wake of the ruling, told Dominican television. “To the contrary, it’s meant to safeguard them.”
Two months after the court ruling, Dominican officials like Rosario, including President Danilo Medina, staunchly defend it. But Haitian diaspora leaders like Lafortune are now calling for a tougher international response, including a boycott of the Dominican tourism industry. And the western hemisphere is confronting the viability of its long custom of birthright citizenship.
What makes the Dominican court judgment so controversial, and so open to human rights accusations, is its sheer retroactive sweep. It’s one thing for the Dominican Republic to have decided a few years ago to end blanket birthright citizenship. It’s another thing for its high court to apply that law as far back as four or five generations. It’s the sort of decree that to many Haitians is bound to feel less like judicial review and more like ethnic cleansing.
And you’d think that given those sensitivities, Dominican leaders would summon a charm offensive to reassure the rest of the world. What they’ve mustered instead is a knee-jerk public-relations disaster.
When Dominican-American author and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz condemned the court ruling, a top Dominican diplomat called him a “pseudo-intellectual.” The D.R.’s conservative Roman Catholic cardinal, Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez – who has called the appointment of the new and openly gay U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, James Brewster, an attempt to impose gay marriage on the D.R. – labeled the ruling’s international critics “charlatans and liars.”
Since they feel Haitian President Michel Martelly’s response has been relatively limp, Haitian advocates are hoping that Brewster and the U.S. can leverage Santo Domingo to alter the new Dominican law.
The U.S. State Department this week reiterated its "deep concern" about the ruling's effects. Roberta Jacobson, assistant U.S. secretary of state for the western hemisphere, said during a visit to Miami last week that the Obama Administration is in “extensive conversations with the Dominicans to … urge them” to at least take measures to protect Haitian-Dominicans.
Venezuela is attempting to mediate the Dominican-Haitian talk. But Jacobson noted that Medina’s government has seemed less than receptive to broader international input. “Frankly, we have been disappointed,” she said, “that there has not been a greater openness, it would appear, to working with [international] organizations” like the U.N., the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community, all of whom have expressed alarm if not censure of the court ruling.
Those concerns have a historical basis. Most prominent: the 1937 massacre of as many as 20,000 Haitian-Dominicans, ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo as a means of whitening his country.
No one is suggesting any atrocity of that kind is on the horizon. And the Dominican government insists it has no mass deportation of Haitian-Dominicans in the works. But such past, cross-territorial horrors are one reason that most countries in the Americas, including the United States, grant birthright citizenship. And that’s what makes the D.R. ruling an uncomfortable precedent in a hemisphere where many conservative Americans, for example, want to revoke birthright citizenship in order to drive Mexican immigrants out of the U.S.
“If this spreads around, we can have many different crises,” warns Reinaldo Valdes, a member of the Haitian-American coalition and the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. “Whether it’s trade or even border wars.”
That might be the worst-case scenario. But it’s a debate the western hemisphere is now going to have to engage more seriously, and not just on the Haitian-Dominican border.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.