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Citizenship shift leaves Dominican-Haitians stateless

During the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Haitians crossed into the wealthier Dominican Republic to escape poverty and political instability only to face color-based racism and repression. Recently, the Dominican government drew international outrage when it ended birthright citizenship for people born to undocumented Haitians in the country. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There is another border story playing out in our hemisphere, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic and Haiti sit side by side yet have a complex and fraught history. During the 20th century, hundreds of thousand of Haitians crossed into the the wealthier Dominican Republic to escape poverty and political instability, only to face color-based racism and at times violent repression. Recently, in what international human rights organizations took to be a swipe at those with Haitian roots, the Dominican government made headlines when it ended birthright citizenship for children born in the D.R. To undocumented parents. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more as part of our ongoing series on Haiti.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    January in the Dominican Republic city of Jimani, near the main border-crossing into Haiti. Earlier in the day, 34-year-old Jesu L'homme Exilair says he was detained. Exilair, a Baptist pastor, says he was unjustly held by Dominican immigration authorities for six hours.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    They come and ask me, 'Hey you, black guy? Where are your documents?' I took them out, and they said 'get on the truck'. And while we drove I asked 'what is the problem here? I have my documents.' And they said they had to verify.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Exilair was born in Dominican Republic to Haitian migrants, and he is a legal resident here. But he is not a Dominican citizen and he cannot vote. That's because, according to the Dominican government, his Haitian heritage makes exilair "a foreigner" in the country of his birth.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    They call you illegal. They say you are not from here, you are Haitian. Go to your country. Most of us don't even know Haiti. We don't know anyone there.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    It used to be that, with few exceptions, being born in the D.R. made you a citizen. But constitutional and legal revisions that took full effect in 2014 changed all that. Under the new law, many Dominicans born to undocumented parents between 1929 and 2007 would lose their citizenship. So would their children, their children's children, and on and on.

    The Dominican government has no estimate of the total number of people affected. But human rights groups estimate hundreds of thousands suddenly lost their citizenship. They were no longer eligible to vote, enroll in higher education, or legally work in the country.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    I'm from the Dominican Republic, I am not from Haiti. And they say no you are here but you are Haitian.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Dominican lawmakers said changes to nationality laws were aimed at tackling decades of illegal migration from Haiti. That's not the opinion the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a watchdog arm of the Organization of American States. It claims the new laws are part of a legacy of racial discrimination, xenophobia and anti-Haitianism in Dominican society.

  • Givena Reyes:

    If I'm walking, since I have black skin, they ask for my passport.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Givena Reyes, who is Dominican of Haitian heritage, is a human rights worker.

  • Givena Reyes:

    There are Dominicans with black skin. And there are Haitians with white skin. I don't understand why they don't hold everyone to the same standard. Many Dominicans walk around without their documents, and if you have no documents on you, how do you prove your nationality?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Reyes says there is historical precedent for the charge of racial discrimination. In the 20th century, tens of thousands of Haitians, most of them black, migrated to the Dominican Republic to work in sugarcane fields and construction. But in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, in an outspoken effort to make Dominican society homogenous and lighter skinned, called for the execution of all Haitians in the country. Tens of thousands of Haitian sugarcane laborers were killed by soldiers and Dominican citizens. Decades of colorism and anti-Haitian legislation followed. Vigilante killings of Haitians by Dominicans were documented as recently as 2015.

  • Givena Reyes:

    Racism is seen on a daily basis. When I was growing up, since I have black skin, children would call me "Haitian devil". That's what they call you. They see you as less than them.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Reyes works at Centro Montalvo, a Haitian rights advocacy group in the Dominican Republic. In 2014 and 15, she and other advocates here helped Dominican-born Haitian descendants go through a new registration process the government demanded. Anyone born to undocumented parents and not found in the country's civil registry had to register with the government as a foreigner or face deportation.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    They gave me documents that say "foreigner". And in the back it says "cannot vote". I feel that shouldn't be. It is not right.

  • Cristina Cuevas-Florian:

    For the children of migrants, things have changed dramatically.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Cristina Cuevas-Florian is what's known as a human rights defender with the Centro Montalvo.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    They've been stripped of their nationality, they've been stripped of everything. Many have had to grow up fast and mature to the point where they can defend themselves, and understand their rights and become documented.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But many people weren't allowed to register, according to international observers, including Amnesty International. It claimed the government process was a legal maze that most found impossible to navigate and some were deported during the registration period without due process. In response, Dominican President Danilo Medina complained the country was wrongly being branded as anti-migrant and racist. He said it was simply implementing its laws and exercising its sovereignty. But based on the Dominican government's own numbers, fewer than 5% of denationalized Dominicans of Haitian descent successfully registered with the government.

  • Givena Reyes:

    When the registration process ended, they started picking up masses of people. Many of those who lived here, had their children here, spent years here, they had to leave to Haiti. There were even moments when they went into people's homes to grab them. They'd run after people. So people still feel fear.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    More than more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent and undocumented Haitian migrants either fled or were deported to Haiti between 2015 and 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration. Here on the Haitian side of the border, makeshift camps sprung up. Willy Pierre works for the Jesuit Haitian rights organization SJM, a French acronym which in English stands for solidarity with migrants along the Haitian border.

  • Willy Pierre:

    They don't have Haitian or Dominican birth certificates. Even though they were born on Dominican soil. It is the Dominicans who decided to take away their Dominican citizenship, and they no longer recognize them as Dominican and we can't recognize them as Haitian. They don't have their feet on any soil.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The Dominican-born Haitians became and remain, effectively, stateless. 42-year-old Viergena Jean, a Haitian national, lived in the Dominican Republic for more than two decades. She says four of her children were born there, and thus were citizens before the new rules took effect, but they were all deported here to Haiti.

  • Viergena Jean:

    I was at the market selling food when they went to my house and took my kids. They put them in a vehicle and took them to Haiti.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Her 15-year-old son, innocent, says his experience with an immigration officer was traumatizing.

  • Innocent Djouny:

    He just said, let's go let's go let's go, and I said, wait, we just need to grab something. And he said no, you can't go get anything. Let's go let's go. And he grabbed me and put me on the bus.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    When she learned where they were several hours later, jean joined her children in Haiti just across the border. They settled here in fond Bayard, a community made up of deportees and others who have joined them.

  • Innocent Djouny:

    Children feel very sad. I am very sad. When they brought us here, we had no family here. We had no idea what we were going to do.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    According to Pierre, many people have settled here because they have nowhere else to go, with little or no connections in Haiti, and no way to earn a living. In fact, he says many pay bribes to guards to illegally re-enter the Dominican Republic in search of work.

  • Willy Pierre:

    They do domestic work in the house or in the garden. Many have families here who are counting on them.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But, he says most of them are simply sent back to Haiti. Meanwhile, advocates say Dominicans of Haitian descent who remain in the Dominican Republic live in a perpetual state of fear.

    A team of lawyers, social workers, and volunteers at Centro Montalvo serve as observers at the border and at military checkpoints along Dominican highways. They say they document rights abuses by Dominican authorities.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    Sometimes they stop me at the checkpoint and they tell me my documents are not valid and they ask me for 200 pesos. But I was told that with these documents I shouldn't have to pay not a single peso.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Despite his legal residency in the Dominican Republic, Exilair has been detained three times in the last year by immigration officials.

  • Jesu L’Homme Exilair:

    I said to them, well if this is how it works, it is impossible to be here legally. You are going to be picked up whether you have documents or not. It is like we have no value.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Authorities at the Dominican Republic's immigration enforcement agency, CESFRONT, declined a formal interview. But they told us they investigate any officer accused of asking of or accepting bribes, and that many have been fined, and in some cases, fired. But officers also admitted that they routinely detain people by racially profiling them.

    Exilair says his wife, parents and several of his siblings were not able to register with the Dominican government and they live here illegally. They rarely leave their neighborhood for fear of deportation. He says his faith in god helps him cope with his worries about the future.

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