Stateless in the Dominican Republic

Human Rights Lawyers Champion the Rights of Disenfranchised Dominicans of Haitian Descent, in a Talk at Columbia Law School

New York, December 15, 2015—The plight of more than 200,000 people in the Dominican Republic who were stripped of their citizenship two years ago by that nation’s highest court was discussed by two human rights attorneys at Columbia Law School. The newly stateless people were Dominican-born to undocumented Haitian immigrant parents or grandparents, and they now face the threat of forced deportation, leading the lawyers to draw parallels to the current debate in the United States over birthright citizenship.

Cassandre Théano, left, and Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan spoke about
the plight of more than 200,000 Dominican-born Haitians
who were stripped of their citizenship by the Dominican Republic.
The Nov. 19 event—“Immigration and Black Lives: Haitian Deportations in the Dominican Republic”—was sponsored by Columbia Law School’s Latino/a Law Students Association and Black Law Students Association, and cosponsored by Social Justice Initiatives, the Columbia Journal of Race and Law, and the Human Rights Institute. It was organized by Daily Guerrero ’17, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was six years old.
Cassandre Théano, an associate legal officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative, explained that in 2013, the Dominican Republic’s highest court denied the daughter of Haitian migrants her “cédula”—or identity papers—confiscated her birth certificate, and applied the decision to anyone born after 1929, revoking the citizenship of Haitian descendants who had been living in the Dominican Republic for generations. “Pretty much every international organization was shocked, and there was a lot of uproar,” Théano said.
Reacting to the international outcry, the Dominican government then passed a 2014 law that was said to lay out a process for those seeking to reclaim their citizenship. But in her experience from working with those meant to benefit from the plan, Théano found the solution onerous. The new rules require all Dominicans born of undocumented Haitians, who were not previously registered by the civil registry, to register as “foreigners” and wait for two years before seeking naturalization. They are often stopped in the street and asked to present identification papers, and they have no legal rights to go to school, to work, or to buy property. Many have been unable to even obtain the documents from local government offices to begin the process. “Literally, these people are in limbo for these two years,” Théano said. “Right now, how can they live? It is a really big question mark.”
“The Dominican Republic’s actions were rooted in a legacy of prejudice against Haitians, said Théano. “We are interested in the vulnerability of people who do not have states.”
While Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola—and a long history of colonialism, slavery, and dictatorships—the Dominican Republic is much more prosperous.  As such, generations of Haitians have migrated to seek menial jobs in building construction and in sugar-cane fields as laborers. “The backbone of the [Dominican] economy has really been supported by exploitation of this cheap [Haitian] labor,” Théano said.
“This is really a racial justice issue,” said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, president of the National Lawyers Guild and an associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, which works with low-wage Latina immigrant workers in the United States. Nearly three-quarters of the Dominican Republic’s population is made up of people of mixed-race heritage, while 95 percent of the Haitian population is black. A language difference also exists, as most Dominicans speak Spanish and Haitians Haitian Creole. “These policies are targeting black and brown people,” Bannan said.
Students questioned the speakers about what the governments of the U.S. and Haiti have done to address the crisis. The U.S. approach has been to “try and resolve this behind closed doors,” Théano said, noting that hundreds of former Peace Corps volunteers sent a letter in August to Secretary of State John Kerry, calling for the U.S. to suspend funding Dominican security forces due to human rights violations against people of Haitian descent. Théano predicted the U.S. will act only when forced to deal with the problem here, when, for example, these stateless people “start coming to Miami’s shores.”