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In Dominican Republic, Haitians Grapple With ‘Stateless’ Limbo

December 17, 2010 at 6:36 PM EDT
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Special correspondents Stephanie Hanes and Steve Sapienza report on the legal struggles of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, some of whom have lived there all their lives. This is the first in a series of reports in partnership with USA Today and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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USA Today, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and The PBS NewsHour are exploring life in Haiti a year after a devastating earthquake. For more coverage, go to usatoday.com and pulitzercenter.org.

JIM LEHRER: Next, we begin a series of reports about what life is like in Haiti nearly a year after the earthquake there.

Tonight, we look at how Haitians are faring in the country they share an island with, the Dominican Republic.

This story was produced through a partnership with USA Today, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the NewsHour.

Special correspondent Stephanie Hanes reports.

STEPHANIE HANES: Haiti’s earthquake and its aftermath have captured the world’s attention. But on the other side of this Caribbean island, a quieter manmade disaster is unfolding.

The U.S. State Department estimates that hundreds of thousands of people here have become, in effect, stateless. They are the children and grandchildren of Haitian immigrants, and are denied access to education, health care, and employment.

SONIA PIERRE, human rights activist (through translator): This debate leads thousands of people to be retroactively stripped of their nationality, people who are Dominicans.

STEPHANIE HANES: Dominican human rights activist Sonia Pierre is worried that recent changes to the constitution will make it even harder to obtain citizenship documents. For years, the Dominican Republic had a policy like the U.S., where almost anyone born in the country became a citizen.

But the government has changed its laws and now says parents must be citizens themselves for their children to be considered Dominican. Pierre says they are using this change to retroactively deny rights to Dominicans of Haitian origin who have lived here for decades.

SONIA PIERRE (through translator): In this country, if you don’t have a document, even buying a cell phone is difficult. You are also denied access to many rights that are considered inalienable human rights, even the right to move freely within the country.

STEPHANIE HANES: There are close to one million people of Haitian origin, immigrants and their descendants in this country of 9.5 million. So, the new laws touch those from all walks of life, people such as lawyer and single mother Sianni Jeans. Sianni’s parents were sugarcane cutters.

For most of the past century, imported Haitian workers fueled the Dominican sugar industry. They lived in impoverished communities called bateyes. And their children born on Dominican soil were considered Dominican. Sianni was one of these children. She grew up on bateyes, but went to law school and has started her own practice. She is working out of a friend’s beauty salon, until she can pay for a proper office.

SIANNI JEANS, lawyer (through translator): This is the office.

STEPHANIE HANES: Her law career has been delayed because of the government’s new policy. Only after Sianni went to the media did the government release the documents she needed to graduate.

Today, Sianni is going to the civil registry to again test her rights as a Dominican citizen.

SIANNI JEANS (through translator): In the past, the government was under orders not to release birth certificates to children of foreigners. My I.D. card, my passport all say I’m Dominican, so I don’t know why there is a problem.

This is the first time I have requested a copy of my birth certificate since the new constitution was approved.

STEPHANIE HANES: Proof of citizenship is required here for everything from marriage and driver’s licenses to voting. For Dominicans of Haitian origin, obtaining these documents has become a legal and bureaucratic nightmare. After 30 minutes, Sianni returns empty-handed.

SIANNI JEANS (through translator): I was told to go see a judge, because cases involving identity papers are resolved by a judge on a case-by-case basis.

STEPHANIE HANES: The Dominican government says their new policy only targets foreigners and that nobody is stateless.

PRIM PUJALS, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (through translator): This term, stateless, doesn’t apply in the Dominican Republic, because these people who are in transit, these people who are not legal residents are supposed to register their names in the book of foreigners that exists at the joint electoral council office.

STEPHANIE HANES: The Dominican government was recently called to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and questioned about the stateless issue. Delegation leader, Senator Prim Pujals, said his country needs the new laws to fight illegal immigration.

PRIM PUJALS (through translator): Discrimination doesn’t exist there. But there’s a phenomenon that international organizations need to think about with respect to the influx of Haitians. There are Haitians that have been living in the Dominican Republic for 50 years. They come for a while, they go back to Haiti, they return, and then they go back to Haiti. We are a country with very limited resources.

STEPHANIE HANES: The border with Haiti is porous. Since the earthquake, the government estimates that at least 60,000 Haitians have migrated into the Dominican Republic.

Many Dominicans are angry about this influx and say Haitians take jobs and financially burden public services. But human rights advocate say this is confusing the issue. In neighborhood after neighborhood, one finds dozens upon dozens of people who consider themselves Dominicans losing citizenship rights they had previously taken for granted.

SONIA PIERRE (through translator): They’re taking way the nationality of people who were born in the 1940s. Some of these people have been in the country for more than 70 years. They may have three, four, five, six generations in this country. So, they are leaving all these generations without documents.

STEPHANIE HANES: Take the family of Andre Jean, the former sugarcane worker who entered the country with a legal work permit.

ANDRE JEAN, sugarcane worker (through translator): I have lived here since 1956. I am 73 years old. I came to pick sugarcane during the time of Trujillo. We were poor, and they said they had jobs, so we came.

MARIA CAMILISE, Dominican Republic (through translator): My father came here in 1956. And all of his children were born here.

ANDRE JEAN (through translator): Those diplomas are from my children. When they move out of the house, they leave their diplomas here on the wall.

STEPHANIE HANES: Andre’s children were born and grew up in the Dominican Republic. Two of his sons joined the Dominican police force. One died in the line of duty, clearing traffic for a presidential motorcade. Now, because of the new policies, the government says they are not citizens.

MARIA CAMILISE (through translator): It’s been four years since my kids graduated from high school, but they can’t go to university, because each time I go for papers, they don’t want to give them to me.

SONIA MIDE CAMILISE, Dominican Republic (through translator): I felt bad. I felt like a nobody. I was born here. They shouldn’t be able to deny my documents. With these documents, I could get into university and get any type of a job.

From my high school class, none of the kids have a chance to go to university, because they all have the same problem as I do.

SONIA PIERRE (through translator): Fundamentally, for us, having an I.D. card is the beginning of the right to have rights.

JIM LEHRER: Visit our website for more coverage of life in Haiti one year after the earthquake. There are also links to the USA Today and Pulitzer Center series.