Beware an Uncertain Dawn in the Dominican Republic

For decades, the Dominican Republic’s treatment of those who trace their roots back to neighboring Haiti has been a disgrace. Their citizenship rights have long been denied as a matter of policy, and in 2010 the Dominican constitution’s citizenship provisions were changed, all to combat the supposed threat that French names and darker skin pose to “Dominican” culture and society.

Now, some are hailing a bright new dawn of human rights in Santo Domingo, as a new law on naturalization supposedly creates a pathway to Dominican citizenship for tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent. The law is significant, as an acknowledgement by the government that something is profoundly wrong. Unfortunately, it also managed to make a bad situation worse.

What the law does is divide individuals with immigrant ancestry born in the country since 1929 into categories.  The first group is those whose births were registered by the Dominican authorities.  These individuals will now—after some administrative adjustments yet to be revealed—be considered Dominican citizens.  The second group is people whose births were never registered. They are now to register as foreigners, will receive a ‘migratory permit’, and will be eligible—but not guaranteed—to ‘naturalize’ as Dominican citizens in due course.  There’s a third group, those who have birth registration but whose documents that are suspected to be the result of fraud or ‘impersonation’ (sometimes parents of Haitian descent would ask others to register their children, simply so that they could be registered).  These are to be subject to investigation by undisclosed means.  

There are a lot of devilish details here, but let’s concentrate on the unprecedented way that the law makes citizenship dependent not on the actual fact of birth in the country – provable with a range of evidence such as medical records, baptismal records, school records, and more – but on whether or not the government registered the birth. This no basis upon which to grant citizenship, and Dominican Republic itself shows why. 

The Dominican bureaucracy has been so discriminatory and erratic over the decades there that it’s common to find families in which some children were registered at birth, while others were not.  Less than ten years ago, Santo Domingo was condemned by the Inter-American Court for refusing to register the births of children of Haitian descent. It would be fairer to ask people to answer a riddle to determine their citizenship, or to throw darts at a board.  At least then the outcome would be marginally within their control. 

Those who have birth registration, superficially better off, are still left in a state of insecurity, since their citizenship isn’t (any longer) based on a constitutional right, but on this particular law’s provisions,  which will expire in a couple of years, leaving anyone who hasn’t managed to navigate the bureaucracy in permanent limbo.

The US grants citizenship the same way the DR did until 2010—to individuals who were born on the territory.  This principle is virtually universal in the western hemisphere.  It links citizenship to independently verifiable facts that are relevant to a person’s belonging to a country, linguistically and culturally, leaving ancestry (imputed or otherwise) out of the equation.  This is logical:  a person’s identity and consequent rights can’t be determined by administrative fiat.  In basing citizenship on birth registration, the Dominican Republic is taking away the very right to have rights, substituting instead the whims, acts and omissions of local government bureaucrats over 71 years.    

The solution is for the Dominican Republic to accept that some of its citizens are a bit darker than others, and, yes, may even have Haitian-sounding names and ancestry: their citizenship should not be jeopardized by legally entrenched or individually-perpetrated racism.  The Dominican Republic needs to accept that pursuing an ethnically-pure nation is incompatible with the rule of law, even when the pursuit is decked out in court rulings and legislation. 

U.S. citizens of Dominican ancestry who got citizenship through being born here should speak out about how the principle guarantees equality of opportunity and builds a great nation.  And Vice President Joe Biden, when he visits Santo Domingo on Monday, June 16, should make it clear that while taking one step forwards after you have taken five steps back is a good thing, it is still not enough. 

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