A controversial immigration policy is roiling politics in the Dominican Republic, and provoking a strong reaction among Dominican Americans as well. Activists, professors, professionals, and others have all taken sides in an unresolved debate over the status of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
For hundreds of years, Haitians have migrated to the Dominican Republic to work in the country’s agricultural industry, small factories, and service sector. Traditionally, their children were considered Dominican as long as they were born in the country. This changed in 2010, when the Dominican Republic passed a constitutional amendment limiting citizenship to children of legal immigrants or those with at least one Dominican parent. Then a 2013 court ruling made the law retroactive to 1929 – effectively rendering Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless.
Last year, the Dominican Republic passed another law promising to restore citizenship for children whose births were in the nation’s civil registry, and an opportunity for naturalization for others. The registration deadline passed last week, and the Dominican government is reportedly setting up the logistics for mass repatriation. This threat of mass expulsions has stoked tensions among Dominican Americans.
“It’s a huge mess,” said New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “I just wish the Dominican government had acted more thoughtfully.”
"We Are All Dominican" organizer Yanilda Maria Gonzalez says she has been called a "traitor" for criticizing the government over recent immigration policies.
What Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent have in common, Reynoso notes, is that they are largely unable to obtain the documentation now required by the Dominican government to stay in the country. Many farm workers don’t have copies of their birth certificates, for instance, and the Haitian government has been little help to those seeking necessary documents.
There are approximately 460,000 Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic. One Dominican government minister told The Guardian that 250,000 have started the application process for residency, and 10,000 met all the requirements. So far, only about 300 people have actually received residency permits – leaving hundreds of thousands at risk for forced removal.
“So what we’re seeing is these large groups of people who don’t have the right documents, or in some cases any documents, and they are all at risk for being removed from the country,” Reynoso said. “Some of them, who were born in the Dominican Republic, have been there for generations, have no connection to Haiti, and only speak Spanish.” (In Haiti, the languages spoken are French and Creole).
“I think this is an issue that Dominicans in the diaspora have been paying attention to, on both sides,” said Yanilda Maria Gonzalez, an organizer with We Are All Dominican. “Very few people have no opinion on this. You see it on social media, people are vocal about it.” Her group sees the Dominican government’s policies as a violation of human rights, and is working to raise awareness of what they call a humanitarian crisis.
“Out of all the countries in the world, the Dominican Republic has been the one that has helped Haiti the most,” said Hilario Castillo of the Dominican Advocacy Coalition.
“The response we get is all over the map,” Gonzalez said. She said that people have called her a “traitor” for criticizing the Dominican government, and that she has been accused of being Haitian. “This is something that people have strong feelings about.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz has been fiercely critical of recent policies; he recently told a Miami audience that, "there is a state of terror in the Dominican Republic," and criticized the "elite" Dominican media for fanning anti-Haitian sentiments. “The last time something like this happened was Nazi Germany, and yet people are like, shrugging about it,” Diaz told Fusion, referring to what he sees as a tepid response from the international community.
But some Dominican Americans support the Dominican government’s position.
“My assessment of the situation is that most people are very misinformed with the facts,” said Hilario Castillo of the Dominican Advocacy Coalition. “There has been a smearing and slandering campaign going on, and people are saying that Dominicans are racist against Haitians; that is not true.”
“Out of all the countries in the world, the Dominican Republic has been the one that has helped Haiti the most,” Castillo said. “We helped them after the earthquake; we were the first in, and the last out. We (the Dominican Republic) even built them a university.” He believes that the Dominican Republic is trying to abide by existing law, and that it is Haiti that deserves criticism for failing to provide documents to its migrant workers and expatriates.
Castillo challenges the notion of Dominican-born Haitians being rendered “stateless;” he said that under the Haitian constitution, those people could qualify as Haitian. He added that many Dominicans and Dominican Americans resent the U.S. and other countries meddling in the Dominican Republic’s affairs.
New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez is trying to keep a positive outlook on the developments in the Dominican Republic. “For the first time in history, President Danilo Medina created and executed a possible pathway to citizenship for people who are undocumented,” he said. “He has acted in good faith. What he has done has been proactive, because people will be able to register and re-establish citizenship.”
Rodriguez, whose district includes Washington Heights, home to a large Dominican population, believes that other countries need to step up and help Haiti. “The international community has not followed through on the money pledged to Haiti after the earthquake. The Dominican Republic cannot do everything on its own; it is still a third-world country.” He stated that he has compassion for the Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic, because they are “not that different” from the immigrants who have come to the U.S. in search of better opportunities.
Throughout their shared history on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic and Haiti have had contentious relations. Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo massacred thousands of Haitians in 1937, and some Dominicans resent the Haitians who fled to their country after the devastating earthquake in 2010.
Syracuse University Professor Silvio Torres-Saillant explains that there is political context for what is currently happening in the Dominican Republic. “I believe that this all began as an act of electoral politics,” he said. “The ruling party in the Dominican Republic has lately been losing popularity, so they see it in their interest to try to disenfranchise about a quarter-million Dominicans of Haitian descent. I see this all as a voter-suppression initiative.”
Torres-Saillant, who founded the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, stated that anti-Haitian prejudice and discrimination is long-standing in the Dominican Republic. “There are people in the Dominican Republic who have made their political career by demonizing Haitians… and there is enough anti-Haitian sentiment surviving that Dominican government can tap into it at convenient moments in history.” The international community has been slow to put any pressure on the Dominican Republic, he said, because many Western countries have their own immigration and migrant crises.
Although there is a “regularization” system in place for Dominicans of Haitian descent to register and nationalize themselves, Torres-Saillant said that it exists mostly in theory. “If you are living in poverty, and your parents were born back in the 1940s, what are the chances that you have kept all your papers and birth certificates and identity cards through the generations?”
Meanwhile, organizer Yanilda Maria Gonzalez said that her group intends to keep up their outreach and advocacy efforts. “Even though there is a lot of uncertainty right now, each time I go to the Dominican Republic I can see the changes. Hopefully we can reach out to more people in the population, and educate them about human rights.”
And despite the possibility of large-scale deportations looming, Gonzales refused to be pessimistic about the future. “If I wasn’t optimistic,” she said, “I wouldn’t be doing this.”