Birthright Denied

By | Sep 04, 2015
A Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative Story

Story and photos by Jacob Kushner

Juliana Deguis Pierre

On Monday, September 23, 2013, Juliana Deguis Pierre was mopping the floors of the house of a wealthy family in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo when a journalist from the daily newspaper El Caribe appeared at the door. “They can’t give you your document because your father came from Haiti,” the journalist told her before snapping her photo without permission and abruptly departing.

It was through this brief encounter that Pierre learned that the country’s Constitutional Court had stripped her of her citizenship, even though she had been born in the Dominican Republic and had never lived anywhere else. Her parents had been among the tens of thousands of laborers bused in over many decades from neighboring Haiti, on the other side of the island of Hispaniola, to perform the backbreaking labor on sugar plantations that most Dominicans are not interested in doing. “My parents cut the cane with machetes,” says Pierre, a compact 31-year-old with deep brown-black skin who speaks only Spanish, the language of the Dominican Republic.

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Pierre grew up in Guanuma, an impoverished batey (a rural sugarworkers’ town) about an hour’s drive from Santo Domingo. She still lives there, in one of the long, single-story concrete buildings that the Dominican government constructed to house workers during the heyday of the sugarcane industry. As her three children play outside, Pierre tells me her story. She was 18 when she decided to apply for her cedula, the all-important government-issued identification card that verifies Dominican nationality and is needed to take the examination required to graduate from high school, to marry, to work and to vote.

Pierre had a Dominican birth certificate, so she thought the application process would be straightforward. With the document in hand, she caught a guagua [minibus] to the civil registry office in the nearby town of Yamasá. The woman behind the counter examined her birth certificate, then handed it back to Pierre and directed her to a different office, in Santo Domingo. Pierre took a bus to the capital, where she again presented her birth certificate. This time she was told that her documents would be processed. Relieved, she went home, but when she came back to retrieve them, she was told the paperwork was not ready. “I went more than three times,” she says. “They didn’t ask hardly anything. They said they were ‘fixing it.’”

On one visit, an official kept Pierre’s birth certificate, and when she returned for it, it was nowhere to be found. “They said I should go to Yamasá,” she says, to get a replacement. Pierre went to the office in Yamasá nearly a dozen times. Each time, the clerks behind the counter refused to issue her a birth certificate.

Pierre knew that the same thing was happening to others born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian laborers, a result of longstanding discrimination against Haitianos—a malleable term Dominicans use to refer to Haitian immigrants or anyone whose skin color, speech or demeanor makes them appear Haitian. But there was nothing she could do, so she gave up. Without a cedula, the only kind of job she could get was as an under-the-table part-time housecleaner.

In 2008, prominent Dominican human rights attorney Manuel de Jesus Dandre came to Guanuma in search of cases such as Pierre’s. Hers became one of 200 or so that wound their way through the Dominican legal system over the next five years. Pierre’s was the one on which the court ultimately based its September 2013 decision and the ramifications were huge. In depriving Pierre of her citizenship, the court revoked the citizenship of more than 200,000 people born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents over the last 85 years. “The 2013 decision had nothing to do with immigration,” says José Horacio Rodriguez, then an attorney for Centro Bonó, one of the leading nonprofit institutions advocating for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent. “It took away nationality from people who were born here. It took away the nationality of people who had always had it.” Some regard the decision as uncomfortably similar to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which on September 15, 1935, codified Adolf Hitler’s racial ideology, depriving German-born Jews of German citizenship and leading to more degrading decrees, outright persecution and eventually genocide. “It’s hardening this discrimination into law,” says Wade McMullen, managing attorney at the Washington-based nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.


Felix Callo Marcel

On her way into the city the morning after the ruling, Pierre was astonished to see her picture in a newspaper on a stand on the street. Overnight, she had become the face of Dominican statelessness. The consequences were immediate: When she arrived at her housecleaning job, the doña fired her on the spot, furious that a photograph taken in her home had appeared in the newspaper. But the long-term consequences were worse. Pierre was now at risk of being deported to Haiti, a country in political and economic turmoil, still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake. While Dominican authorities had long been rounding up Haitian-looking people from towns near the border and depositing them unceremoniously on the Haitian side, an entirely new category of people was now legally vulnerable. “They are at risk of being deported to a country they have never lived in,” says Dandre, himself the son of two Haitian immigrants.

“Maybe the [government] is hoping that several generations of their citizens will ‘self-deport’ to Haiti if you take their identity away,” says the award-winning Haitian-born author Edwidge Danticat. “But what they’re doing is creating a tier of people who cannot contribute, beyond perhaps their limited physical strength, to a growing society. You take away their ability to learn, to work, and you also take away their ability to continue to build a society that they’ve helped sustain for many generations.”

In many ways, the campaign to expel the children of Haitian immigrants is impractical. Their labor—and that of their parents—helped propel the Dominican economy last year to grow faster than all but one other country’s in Latin America, firmly establishing it as a middle-class nation. They are a significant part of the workforce in the booming construction and tourism industries that have helped transform the Dominican Republic into the most popular travel destination in the Caribbean. But in a chaotic democracy that has adopted 38 different constitutions over a century and a half, anti-Haitianismo is the one enduring notion that mainstream parties across the political spectrum can invoke with impunity. It is driven by the fervor of Dominican nationalists, and, in particular, by one powerful, ultra-conservative family and its allies.

The Constitutional Court’s decision didn’t materialize out of thin air—it was the culmination of centuries of racism. The history of the island of Hispaniola is a dark one. It was here that Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, and where he would later return with his Spanish countrymen en masse to divvy up the island, subjugate the native Taínos and, later, import African slaves to grow sugarcane. With trade came Caribbean pirates and, at the turn of the 17th century, Spain abandoned the western part of the island in favor of safer shipping lanes from the east. By 1665, French colonists had filled in the void in the west, and Hispaniola was officially divided into two separate colonies: one Spanish, one French.

In 1791, inspired by the French Revolution, the slaves in the French colony rebelled, and in 1804, Haiti became the first—and thus far, only—nation in the world to be born of a revolution of slaves. But economic hardship and a crushing debt imposed by France led Haiti to invade the Spanish side of the island in 1822, and the entire island came under Haitian control. To this day, Dominicans resent the fact that their forefathers endured Haitian rule until 1844, when the country wrested back its freedom and rejoined the Spanish empire. Not until 1865 did the Dominicans topple Spanish rule and declare independence.

On one side of Hispaniola today are the Spanish-speaking Dominicans, descended from Africans and Spaniards, and on the other are Creole-speaking Haitians, descended from Africans and the French. Dominicans have a wide range of skin tones, but most ethnic Haitians are on the darker end of the spectrum, the result of a high historic ratio of African slaves to Europeans. These perceived racial differences took on dire new significance in 1930, when Rafael Trujillo, a Dominican general trained by United States Marines, rose to power in a coup in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo was obsessed with racial purity and envisioned a homogenous nation. “He had traveled to Germany, Spain and Italy,” says Jose Ricardo Santos, a professor of culture at the Dominican Republic’s premier university, Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. Trujillo’s ideas “fit into the international thinking at that time,” he says. “Hitler, too, defined his nation based on those that were not a part of it.” As a result, Trujillo did everything he could to expel “negritude” from the Dominican identity.


Vinicio Castillo Semán



Juan Miguel Castillo Pantaleón



Manuel de Jesus Dandre / © AP Images

Just as these ideas led to the deaths of millions in World War II, Trujillo’s campaign resulted in an infamous 1937 massacre, in which tens of thousands of Haitian sugarcane laborers living near the border were slaughtered in less than a week. “In this massacre, Trujillo defined nationality and who is Dominican and what is Dominican,” says Santos, and “that it has one specific origin, which is the Hispanic identity.”

In 1952, however, economic necessity forced Trujillo to import a low-cost workforce of thousands to cut sugarcane, and the dictator signed a formal agreement with Haiti to bring Haitian workers back. One of the offspring of these workers was Jose Francisco Peña Gomez. A hero to Dominicans of Haitian descent, the highly educated Gomez was elected mayor of Santo Domingo and eventually became the leader of the liberal Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD). Gomez ran unsuccessfully for president in 1990, 1994 and 1996, narrowly losing the last race in a runoff to lawyer Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD). Fernandez won by joining forces with the ultraconservative National Progressive Force (FNP), a party founded by Marino Vinicio Castillo Rodríguez. For his support, “Vincho,” as he is known, was rewarded with a powerful position in the Fernández cabinet: director of ethics to the president’s advisory of ministries. Vincho, now 84, holds the same post in the cabinet of current Dominican Republic president and PLD leader Danilo Medina. The alliance between the two parties has remained intact, allowing the PLD to control the presidency for 15 of the last 20 years and ensuring the country’s nationalist course.

Vincho is also quite literally the father of the movement that is undermining the rights of Dominicans of Haitian heritage. He and his three sons—Juarez, the eldest and a constitutional legal scholar; Pelegrín, a former deputy in the National Chamber of Deputies, and Semán, a current deputy—are waging a political, legal and media war to defend the Dominican Republic against what they believe is the nation’s gravest threat: Haitian immigrants and their children.

On a hot morning in January, I sit down in an air-conditioned private room on the second floor of the Castillo family law office, which overlooks Santo Domingo’s tranquil Botanical Gardens. Semán, a short man with light skin and a focused demeanor, enters. “We’re a family that has very strong political roots,” begins Semán, 51, gesturing at the array of framed law degrees and portraits adorning the walls. “My great-grandfather was General Manuel Maria Castillo Medrano, hero of the Restoration of the Republic.” In the 150 years since his great-grandfather helped end Spanish colonialism, Semán believes nothing has threatened the nation’s existence more than what he calls the present-day Haitian “invasion.”

In a letter last year to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Semán wrote that to allow the “invasion” to continue would “create very dangerous confrontations in between the populations, which is what we’re trying to avoid—ones that could destabilize the island.” To Semán, the “Haitian question” is about a clash of civilizations: How can two inherently different peoples live together? “To have hundreds of thousands and even millions of people with distinct religious beliefs, with distinct languages, with distinct customs, become established within another society—history says what happens. Conflicts arise all over the world. That’s what we want to prevent.”

Semán’s brothers feel the same way. After the September 2013 decision stripped Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, Juarez wrote a long defense of it, arguing that “not only [was it] unquestionably just and with precedent” but also it was “invaluable from a historical point of view, a true light and guide and protection of nationality, integrity, and sovereignty of the Dominican Republic.” After governments, international institutions and human rights activists around the world condemned the decision, Pelegrín sent a letter to the United States Congress, asking American legislators not to be swayed by what he called “a media campaign of lies and misinformation.”

While the Castillo family has spent much of the last decade crafting nationalist rhetoric, exerting pressure on politicians and rallying the public against los Haitianos, the primary author of the legal iteration of that argument is a lawyer (of no relation) named Juan Miguel Castillo Pantaleón. He is the author of a voluminous book called The Dominican Nationality. In it, he writes about Haiti and its people in passages such as this: “The greater part of its population, which has lived in primitive and almost beastly conditions, cannot communicate easily with the rest of the world, seeing as their language doesn’t permit them to clearly understand one another.”

Pantaleón, 50, is a large man with a grayish-brown complexion who wears his white hair combed straight back. When he talks, he widens his eyes and pauses for emphasis. “It’s a lie that the Dominican Republic has denationalized thousands of people, pure and simple,” Pantaleón tells me one afternoon in his Santo Domingo law office. As he sees it, the children of Haitian immigrants were never meant to be citizens in the first place. Pantaleón roots his argument primarily in a 1939 law based on a 1929 constitution that denied Dominican citizenship to children whose parents were “in transit” at the time of giving birth. The law defined “in transit” as a period not exceeding ten days, with the idea that citizenship shouldn’t be bestowed on someone who was born by chance during a short visit to the country.


Mireya, Geovanny and Minerva Libe

Those two words from the 1929 constitution—“in transit”—are at the center of the legal debate today. For Pantaleón and the Castillos, if parents spent more than ten days in the country, they did so illegally. Their children are not entitled to citizenship.

Dandre, the human rights attorney, finds that argument hard to believe. A black man with a weathered face and short gray hair, Dandre, 55, was born in Azua, a southwestern town that was once the heart of the sugarcane-producing region. Today, he is at the forefront of the struggle to help people like Pierre retain their Dominican identity, but between 1997 and 2000 he was a cog in the machine that brought some of their parents here in the first place. He worked for the state consortium that found thousands of workers for all the sugar plantations. His job was to do the paperwork to bring them legally to the Dominican side. “There were two army officers with me,” says Dandre, “and I certified that I could pay for the food of the workers, the people who brought them and the drivers of the buses that would bring them to the plantation.” Once the paperwork was complete, the migration would begin. “Daily we could have 100 buses of 30 people,” he says. “Each one left with a soldier.”

I ask Dandre about Pantaleón’s argument—that all of these people were in the Dominican Republic illegally. “The government gave them houses, land, spaces to farm,” he says. There were formal, written accords between the sugar consortium and Haiti’s government, approved by Dominican authorities. “How can that be illegal?”

By the 1990s, anti-Haitian discrimination had become the standard practice of Dominican authorities, who would arbitrarily deny documents such as birth certificates to children born to Haitian workers. In 1997, two parents requested their daughters’ birth certificates from the civil registry so they could enroll them in school past the 7th grade. When the registry refused to furnish them, attorneys petitioned the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACtHR), an international law tribunal based in Costa Rica. They argued that the Dominican government had discriminated against the children based on race and ethnicity, violating the American Convention on Human Rights, to which the Dominican Republic is a signatory. The Dominican Republic argued that it hadn’t violated the girls’ rights because their parents had been “in transit.”

The IACtHR took up the case in 2001 and, while it was deliberating, the Dominican Republic Senate passed a new law in 2004 that defined all Haitian immigrants who did not have legal permanent residency to be “in transit.” The following year, the IACtHR ruled against the Dominican Republic, saying that a foreigner who resides and makes connections in the country cannot be considered “in transit.” What’s more, the IACtHR ruled that “the migratory status of a person is not transmitted to the children.” It ordered the country to apologize to the two girls, pay them $8,000 in damages and change the law to ensure that birth certificates would henceforth be furnished without discrimination. The Dominican government’s response was swift: The Senate rejected the decision, while the nation’s Supreme Court upheld the 2004 law in direct violation of the binding IACtHR ruling.

The nationalist assault wasn’t over. In 2007, supporters succeeded in persuading the country’s powerful Central Electoral Commission to enforce the “in transit” policy and reject documents that were “irregular.” This action legitimized the practice of arbitrarily denying birth certificates to children of Haitian parents and cedulas to adults, and instructed authorities to confiscate existing documents. To further cement their victory, the nationalists convinced the country’s politicians—including some of the opposition PRD—to add a clause definitively denying Dominican citizenship to people born to undocumented immigrants to a series of constitutional amendments that passed in 2010. Once enshrined in the constitution, it was official: All children born in the Dominican Republic whose ancestors did not have formal documentation when they immigrated would not be Dominican.

This was a huge blow to activists. With few political allies, Dandre and other lawyers filed lawsuits such as Pierre’s, arguing that it was unconstitutional to retroactively apply the new provision. Slowly, these cases worked their way up on appeal to the Constitutional Court, which had been established to deliberate over matters of nationality. Two years went by without a judgment until, on September 23, 2013, Juliana Deguis Pierre was found ineligible for Dominican citizenship. Only two of the 13 justices dissented.

“It is as if the United States government decided to denationalize all Latin Americans and all their children, and expel them,” says Dandre.

Unable to make progress judicially, the activists organized protests in the hope of pressuring the legislature and the administration of President Medina to pass a law that would undo the court’s decision. Pierre became a reluctant figurehead, giving interviews and speaking at press conferences and rallies both in the capital and throughout the country. She recalls that anti-Haitian Dominicans would sometimes shout at her on the street to go back to “her country.” Pierre’s friends told her that death threats were being made against her on Facebook. “They say that when you’re in the street you have to walk carefully,” she says. “My lawyers tell me that, too.”

The Castillo family and its allies fought back with legal briefs, press conferences and newspaper editorials. Pressured from both sides, the legislature and the administration debated a new naturalization law. In May 2014, congress passed Law 169-14, which divided all of the descendants of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic into two categories. The first group of nearly 25,000 people was born before the “in transit” policy was consistently enforced beginning in 2007. They had been inscribed in the civil registry and issued birth certificates. Although the court ruled that they had been given documents in error, they could retain their citizenship. A second, much larger group of more than 265,000 people, according to Dominican government and UN sources, had to register as foreigners. This category included nearly 22,000 children born between 2007 and 2010 who had been recorded in the civil registry as foreigners. The rest had never been listed in the registry or issued birth certificates. Registering as a foreigner guaranteed them nothing: After two years they would be given the opportunity to apply for naturalized citizenship. A deadline was imposed, then extended twice. Those who did not register—or tried but were unable due to insufficient documentation, delays or discrimination by officials—would be considered to be residing in the Dominican Republic illegally.


Guanuma batey



Juliana Deguis Pierre at home

The law has divided families. “Despite being born and raised Dominican by the same parents in the same community, a brother could now be forced to report to the authorities as a foreigner (or face expulsion), while his sister’s citizenship is recognized,” explains Santiago Canton, an executive director of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, in a recent article for Americas Quarterly. This is precisely what has happened to the Libe sisters. Born to Haitian parents, Mireya, Geovanny and Minerva live in Santo Domingo. They dress and speak like Dominicans but the middle sister, Geovanny, was the only one with a clear Dominican identity under the law, since she has a valid birth certificate. The birth certificate of Mireya, the eldest, had been confiscated and was considered invalid, but under the law she was eligible for a cedula. Minerva, the youngest of the sisters at 20, was never issued a Dominican birth certificate. She is therefore among the group of people who must register as foreigners. So far she has refused to do so. “I was born here,” she says. “This is the only country I know. This is the language I know. If I register as a foreigner, I won’t have the same privileges as everyone else.”

Cy Winter, head of the UN’s International Organization for Migration in the Dominican Republic, says the law is not necessarily a bad thing. “I don’t think the answer is as simple as slamming the Dominicans,” he tells me one morning in his Santo Domingo office. To Winter, some of the arguments against extending nationality to the children of Haitian immigrants have merit. He says hundreds, possibly thousands, of women cross the border each year from Haiti to give birth in Dominican hospitals, where there is a higher standard of care. “Those are the cases that the Dominican government and the nationalists bring up and say, ‘Well, what the heck? So all of these births that we’ve facilitated on our territory because we can’t deny medical services are now supposed to become Dominican?’” adds Winter. Allowing these children to register in accordance with the new regularization law, even if they must do so as foreigners, he says, means that “they’re not unknown quantities anymore.”

In practice, the government has made what is called the regularization process difficult. Officials first rejected Mireya Libe’s application, for instance, despite the fact that she clearly fell into the group that was grandfathered in and was entitled to a cedula. And new barriers have been erected that have complicated the process. Last year the Central Electoral Commission—the body responsible for overseeing identity documents and widely considered the foremost obstacle to documenting Dominicans of Haitian descent—announced that everyone in the country needed to get a new national ID card. Normally, cards are renewed once every ten years.

Juan Bólivar Díaz, the founder of a movement called the Committee in Solidarity with Denationalized Persons and a prominent journalist at the newspaper Hoy, believes the move was a ploy to further de-document people, many of whom now have to fight to obtain or re-obtain documents. Díaz points out that invalidating the national identification cards of Dominicans of Haitian descent also disenfranchises a bloc of potentially anti-PLD voters. “This base could take [away] 50,000, 60,000 or 80,000 votes, when elections here are often decided by 20,000, 40,000 or 50,000 votes,” he says.

Lawyers have documented hundreds of cases in which government officials have failed to abide by the rules of the regularization process. At a gathering of activists in his Santo Domingo home, Díaz told of a dark-skinned woman named Nancy Toussaint. Written into the Dominican civil registry since birth, she had both an ID and a passport. But upon attempting to renew her ID, she was unlawfully asked to furnish her birth certificate to prove again that she was born here. When she sought a new copy of her birth certificate, she was denied it. Toussaint can no longer vote.

Now that discrimination against Haitians has been set into law, Díaz and other activists are pursuing a new strategy: They are trying to change public sentiment. That’s a tall order for a nation that remains largely mired in the legacy of Trujillo, embracing its European identity and rejecting its African one. “This is a country that has a profound problem of cultural identity,” Díaz says. “Many Dominicans don’t accept—they ignore—that we’re of African descent. We think that we’re Spanish.

“You know when Dominicans discover that they’re not white? When they go to the United States or Europe,” says Díaz. “Sometimes they have a great trauma when they go on pretending that they’re white but then they’re treated as black.”

Díaz says this ongoing confusion over racial identity begins in school. “They don’t teach the true history in schools,” he says. “What they teach is anti-Haitianismo.” In 2007, as part of a research-abroad program, I conducted a survey of 18- and 19-year-old high school students, asking them basic historical questions: Dominicans are descendants of which of the following—Europeans, Taínos or Africans? I asked the same question about Haitians. Only three out of 116 high school seniors correctly identified that both Haitians and Dominicans are descendants of both Europeans and Africans. When asked which group commits the majority of crimes in the Dominican Republic, three-fourths said Haitians do, when in fact, the director general of prisons reported that as recently as 2013 Haitians represented just 5 percent of people incarcerated for major crimes.

What accounts for such high levels of ignorance? Activists and scholars alike say that education has a long history of being used as a tool for setting and resetting the country’s definition of self, especially in regard to national identity and citizenship. The Dominican national curriculum often falsely traces Dominicans to indigenous and European roots, Haitians to heathens. One 2007 textbook, Dominican Geography and History, describes a rebellion in which African slaves killed 12 or 14 “whites” as a “catastrophe” and a “conspiracy.” There is no mention of the countless murders, torture and other crimes committed by the “whites,” or of the conspiracy by Dominican forefathers to enslave 100,000 Africans.

“As a result of this manipulation and distortion of Dominican history in school, Dominican children acquire these attitudes and beliefs and make them their own,” says Ernesto Sagas, who studied anti-Haitianismo in Dominican schools in the 1990s. “Anti-Haitianismo indoctrination continues after formal education is over: Haitians, Sagas explains, are the “scapegoats of Dominican society, very similar to Mexican immigrants in the United States.”

Anti-Haitian rhetoric blinds Dominicans to how isolated they are in the region when it comes to their nationality laws. “I’ve been in every country in Latin America following these issues for more than 20 years,” says Canton, the international human-rights lawyer. “I haven’t seen any country like that in Latin America, with such a high level of nationalists discriminating against a group of people.”

Canton isn’t alone in his concern. In July, a UN working group called on the Dominican Republic “to address allegations of racial profiling during deportations of people of Haitian descent” and noted that the country failed to recognize “the existence of a structural problem of racism and xenophobia.” In response to the September 2013 ruling, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)—the regional economic and foreign policy body made up of 15 Caribbean nations—rejected the Dominican Republic’s attempt to join. And last month, the U.S. Department of State urged the government to allow people sufficient time and means to formalize their status and have their claims adjudicated before forging ahead with deportations. The United States also asked that the Dominican Republic “take measures adequate to prevent the risk of statelessness and the discriminatory confiscation of documents,” and “avoid mass deportations and conduct any deportations in a transparent manner that fully respects the human rights of deportees.”

As of today, only 55,000 out of 288,486 people have had their Dominican nationality recognized and preserved, although some of them have still been unable to obtain their documents. So far only about 9,000 people have been registered as foreigners.

Dominican officials deny that they plan to engage in mass deportations. But even before the June 17 regularization deadline, the government had already begun deporting people. In January, 51 people, including 30 children ages 7 to 13, all born in the Dominican Republic, were traveling by bus to an office where they could register in accordance with the new law. The entire group was detained by security forces and illegally deported to Haiti, according to an Amnesty International report. They spent a night there before protests by advocates pressured the Dominican immigration authority to let them back in.

In June, Dominican Interior Minister Ramon Fadul told the British newspaper The Guardian that anyone with proof of having begun the registration process would not be deported for 45 days. Nevertheless, reports from the International Organization for Migration, several NGOs and numerous news accounts indicate that since June 17, tens of thousands of people have been deported to Haiti or pressured to leave. Haitian officials say that about 700 families, or an estimated 2,000 people, have settled in makeshift refugee camps on the Haitian side of the southern border crossing between the two countries. In June, Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul said 14,000 people had fled or been deported to Haiti and accused Dominican officials of creating a “humanitarian crisis” in Haiti. In August, Dominican officials put the figure at 66,000, but said that those individuals had returned to Haiti voluntarily.

Meanwhile, presidential elections are slated for 2016, and it is likely that the PLD will enter its third decade of nearly uninterrupted power. The party’s candidate could be either former president Fernández or current President Medina, who recently succeeded in pushing through a constitutional amendment allowing him to serve consecutive terms. Both men remain staunch allies of the Castillo family. In February, nationalists marched in Santo Domingo in support of Medina, who lashed out against the “international human rights lobby” for criticizing his administration for its role in denationalizing tens of thousands of people. “No other nation in the world, or international organization, can demand that the Dominican Republic make sacrifices to its migratory system, or any other sovereign right beyond those in place through laws and the Constitution,” he said in his speech.

Back in Guanuma, Juliana Pierre feels encouraged. She is among the minority of Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been recognized as eligible for citizenship and all of the rights that come with it. Thirteen years after applying, she now has her cedula. But her batey is filled with people who remain stateless. One of them is Felix Callo Marcel, a handsome 21-year-old with cropped hair, large eyes and a calm manner.

Marcel was never granted a birth certificate, so in December 2010, when he went to apply for a cedula at the Central Electoral Commission, he brought along the only identification he had: A certificate establishing his enrollment at a local high school and his father’s ID from a sugarcane company where he worked. Marcel’s application was rejected because his father’s last name was spelled slightly differently from his own due to an error made by a company official years ago.

The electoral commission also confiscated Marcel’s original school certificate—all he has now is a copy he had made of it. It is impossible for him to hold a formal job, even as an agricultural laborer. Nor can he travel freely within his own country. In 2013, he took a church trip to San Juan de la Maguana, a town near the border with Haiti, where he was stopped while boarding a public bus home with a friend. “My friend was more light-skinned so they let him on the bus, but they wouldn’t let me on,” Marcel recalls. He had no choice but to linger for a day while his friend returned to the batey for Marcel’s copy of his certificate.

I ask Marcel about what it was like to grow up in a country where he is not welcome. “A history teacher asked us a question in class once,” he tells me. “She asked what would we want to change if we were to be born all over again. I said if I were born again, I’d be born in a country where they don’t deny me my nationality.”

One thought on “Birthright Denied

  1. sandy brusin says:

    Heartbreaking story with so many parallels to our own immigrant problems.

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