SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – While politicians in at least 14 states are arguing the merits of birthright citizenship in the U.S., this country is already ruling out citizenship for thousands of people.
Over the past seven years, the Dominican government has re-written its Constitution, re-interpreted old laws and passed new ones, effectively eliminating birthright citizenship. Today, a child born in the Dominican Republic is no longer automatically a citizen; citizenship goes only to those who can prove they have at least one documented parent.
Further, vigorous enforcement of the new rules means that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly of Haitian descent, are finding it increasingly difficult to get access to their birth certificates, which are required to get married, obtain a high school diploma, start a business, get a driver’s license or passport or even sign up for a phone plan. It is also needed to get a cédula, the national identity card that is essential for voting and conducting a licensed business activity such as banking.
Without proper documentation, these residents have no legal status in the Dominican Republic, and many who have been in this country for years are unable to prove they are legal citizens of Haiti, either.
They are, in effect, stateless – citizens of no country.
Cristobal Rodríguez, a Dominican human rights attorney and law professor, puts it another way: “Here a civil genocide is being committed,” he said.
Miledis Juan looks down at her 1-year-old son Henry, his nose running and eyes swollen from a cold. His arms stretch upward, and Juan picks him up.
She and her son were both born in this country, and that, Juan says, gives them every right to be Dominican citizens. But the Dominican government has another view of the matter, and that leaves Juan worried about her son’s future and her own.
“He practically doesn’t exist,” she said. “Without documents you are nobody.”
Dominican officials say the country’s laws were never meant to grant birthright citizenship to the children or descendants of illegal immigrants. And they argue against the term “stateless” as applied to those of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic.
José Ángel Aquino, a magistrate for the country’s civil registry, the Junta Central Electoral, said Haitian descendants can go back to Haiti and obtain citizenship as long as they can prove their parents are Haitian.
“Because of this, in the case of the Haitians, for us, you can’t speak of the ‘stateless,’” Aquino said in Spanish. “These Haitian citizens always have the possibility of declaring themselves in their consulate…or simply in Haiti.”
But for many Haitian immigrants, like Juan, the situation is more complex.
Born in December 1985 when laws and attitudes were different, Juan was granted a Dominican birth certificate and a national identification card. She has no papers proving she is from Haiti, and to become a naturalized Haitian citizen, she would have to go through a five-year application process, said Liliana Gamboa, a project director for the Open Society Justice Initiative in Santo Domingo.
Besides, Juan doesn’t want Haitian citizenship; she has never lived in the country. “I know that Haiti exists because there is a map that I can see where it is, but I actually have no connections with it,” she said.
Her life is in Batey Esperanza, a poor, mostly Haitian-Dominican community just outside the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, where she works long days at an embroidery machine in a free-trade zone.
Although she went to college to become a teacher, she is unable to get a teaching job because she can’t get a new copy of her birth certificate. The country’s civil registries retain every citizen’s original birth certificate and issue duplicates upon request. Official duplicates are necessary for every legal act, from applying to a university and purchasing property to obtaining a marriage license and securing most jobs. Each duplicate can be used for only one purpose and expires in a few months.
Juan said that when she went to the civil registry, she was told her she should never have been registered as a Dominican citizen because her parents came without documents from Haiti.
“Practically, my hands are tied,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do because without that birth certificate, I’m paralyzed.”
She also needs her birth certificate to get Henry one of his own. Without it, he cannot access public health services or attend school past the eighth grade.
“My biggest fear is that he’s in the country without documents,” Juan said. “He is nobody in the country.”
Before birthright citizenship was abolished, the Dominican Constitution stated that anyone born in the country was a citizen, with the exception of children born to people “in transit,” a term generally interpreted to mean those in the country fewer than 10 days. The first of the changes passed in 2004 redefined “in transit” to mean those in the country illegally. A year later, the Dominican Supreme Court upheld the 2004 law as constitutional.
Six years later, the Dominican government revised its Constitution to further limit citizenship. Since Jan. 26, 2010, citizens must prove they have at least one parent of Dominican nationality to be recognized.
At the same time, the Junta Central Electoral, which oversees the civil registries, issued an order known as Circular 17, which directs government employees not to give duplicates of birth certificates and other identity documents if they have any reason to believe the person should not have Dominican citizenship.
According to Gamboa, this means the JCE “decides …if you are worthy of your documentation” and has led to the targeting of people with French-sounding last names and dark skin.
That’s what Modesta Michel believes happened to her. Michel applied for her national ID card when she turned 18 in 2007. Cédulas are issued at age 18 and must be renewed every six years or when the government issues a new version.
At first, all went well. She had an approved copy of her birth certificate, and the civil registry office approved her cédula, giving her a receipt that verified the information that would appear on her identification card.
But then she was told that she would not get the official, laminated card after all because her parents immigrated from Haiti, she said.
And shortly after, when she needed a copy of her birth certificate to take the national test for a high school diploma, that, too, was denied, she said.
“Every year goes by, and I sometimes feel like hope is going away, but I have to trust God that eventually this will get solved because studying is the only way that I can actually move forward in life,” Michel said through a translator. “It’s the only option that I have.”
Government officials say Circular 17 simply upholds the original intent of the Constitution. People who are in the country illegally were never meant to have Dominican citizenship and some have gotten it only because of errors and corruption on the part of civil registry employees, JCE magistrate Aquino said.
But many advocates for the stateless, including Gamboa, contend that retroactive application of the new law is forbidden by international treaties to which the Dominican Republic is party, including the American Convention on Human Rights under the Organization of American States.
The Open Society Justice Initiative and other human rights organizations have begun fighting the changes in court. They won a key victory in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005 with Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic, which led to the granting of Dominican citizenship to two young girls of Haitian descent.
More recently, they’ve taken up the case of Emildo Bueno. Born in the Dominican in 1975, he had several citizenship documents, including a birth certificate and passport. Even so, in 2007 when Bueno went to obtain a copy of his birth certificate for a visa to join his wife in the U.S., he was turned down because his parents were Haitian nationals.
With Rodríguez, the Dominican human rights attorney, representing him, Bueno took his case to a Dominican national court in 2008, claiming a violation of his basic human right to nationality. The case was unsuccessful.
“In spite of all evidence and proof and the fact that legally I was good, the judge took a decision against me,” Bueno said in Spanish.
He submitted an appeal to the Dominican Supreme Court in 2009, but the court has yet to rule. Meanwhile, Francisco Quintana, a deputy program director and litigator for the Center for Justice and International Law, has submitted the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Gamboa said a favorable ruling from the international could draw attention to the problem and pressure the Dominican government into changing its policies.
“At the end of the day, it will be political pressure that will bring the result we expect, which is the recognition of nationality of people of Haitian descent,” she said.
But in the meantime, they have another worry. The Dominican Republic is working on a new national identity card system aimed at eliminating fraudulent citizenship by requiring residents to submit fingerprints and biometric photos that are entered into a national data bank. Aquino said the JCE has received fingerprints and photos from 4 million people so far.
The JCE is “15 years behind” in fully implementing the system, Aquino, said, but is working hard to make up the time. He said the JCE also has presented a proposal to the Dominican government asking for approval to do a full “biometric census” of all foreigners in the country.
Gamboa and other human rights activists fear that these new programs will lead to every person of Haitian descent being classified as illegal.
“The problem is going to be huge,” Gamboa said. “I hope, and maybe I have faith, that it will not happen, that the DR realizes before that that it cannot commit such a crime.”
“I think people without an identity, without a nationality, are really the ones who are most unprotected in the world,” she added. “When no country wants to recognize you as a citizen, then there’s nobody to protect you.”
Though the political situation for Haitian immigrants and their children has been bleak, there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Aquino said that he supports a regularization program for Haitian workers. In late July another JCE magistrate, Eddy Olivares, said in a televisions interview that the children of Haitian immigrants should be given identity papers — especially those that came to the Dominican Republic under labor agreements with Haiti. He further stated that the Dominican Republic’s immigration agency, not the JCE, has the authority to make decisions on the validity of identity documents and the JCE, therefore, should not be invalidating documents because a person’s parents are immigrants. In the end, however, a major political and legislative shift would have to occur, throughout the Dominican government, to turn the tide against immigrant rights.
There isn’t much Juan, Michel or Bueno can do while citizenship continues to be redefined in the country of their birth.
Juan goes to work each day at the clothing factory, although she would much rather be teaching.
Bueno made it to the U.S. after finally obtaining his visa. He works at a security company in Florida while his case for Dominican citizenship is being appealed. He has temporary residence in the U.S., but has no official citizenship anywhere.
Bueno spoke for them all when he said, “We have no country now.”
Along with thousands of others, they hope they are not wrong when they call themselves Dominican.