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Lessons From The Dominican Republic


Monday, Apr. 01, 2002

This column is the first of a two-part series on immigration issues, looking at the United States and the Dominican Republic. -- Ed.

Dominicans immigrate to the U.S. in massive numbers, both legally and illegally, and thus rank high among the people Buchanan is seeking to keep out. Unsurprisingly, their understanding of the "dangers" of illegal immigration is an asymmetrical one. Conveniently ignoring their own status in the United States, many Dominicans feel deeply threatened by illegal immigration at home.

Over the past week, sparked by a recent government announcement, the debate over illegal immigration in the Dominican Republic has exploded. Emotional, overwrought, and laden with bellicose references to alien invaders and national sovereignty, the media discussion been dominated by nationalist politicians and other representatives of the country's right wing. Despite his oft-stated wariness of foreign cultures, Patrick Buchanan would feel very much at home.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic

As in the United States, the debate over immigration in the Dominican Republic is as much about race as it is about anything. Dominicans opposed to immigration do not fear it so much in principle as they do in its specifics. And what it means in the Dominican context is the immigration of black Haitians, nearly all of whom enter the country illegally.

Sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, its much poorer neighbor, the Dominican Republic has long relied on Haitian immigration as a source of low cost labor, particularly for work on the country's sugar plantations. But the Dominican Republic's embrace of these Haitian immigrants has never been whole-hearted.

Creole-speaking Haitians are descended from African slaves, while Dominicans -- who also have African ancestry -- speak Spanish, and many claim Spanish or other European ancestors. Even though there is no clear racial divide between the two countries, the Haitian population is generally considered "blacker" than that of the Dominican Republic. Many Dominicans, whatever their skin color, view Haitians as African, and unlike themselves.

The Dominican Republic's early immigration laws, like those of the U.S., were facially discriminatory; they imposed stringent controls on the entry of non-Caucasians. Indeed, during WWII, the Dominican Republic was one of the only countries that welcomed Jewish immigration, seeing it as a way in which to "improve" the country's gene pool. (The irony of extending such a policy to people fleeing Hitler's racial persecution probably escaped them.)

While the country's laws have changed, the prejudice that inspired them still lingers. Even now, inflammatory statements by government officials, such as former President Joaqu"n Balaguer's call to Dominicans to stand in "sacred union" against the "peaceful invasion" of Haitian migrant workers, are a routine staple of the country's political culture. Those who sympathize with the plight of Haitians are often labeled anti-Dominican.

Recent Developments

The actual agreement covers only nine people, and is unobtrusive by any standards. But Dominican nationalists, purposefully misconstruing its terms, have portrayed it an alarming attack on national sovereignty. Dominican radio and television have been crowded with nationalists criticizing the agreement, and members of "neighborhood watches" have been on the air saying that they will organize themselves to defend their neighborhoods against the Haitians, if the government is not willing to do so.

The country's cardinal, whose pronouncements carry great sway in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, has attacked the agreement as undermining national sovereignty. Anti-Haitian graffiti -- including slogans such as "stop the invasion" -- have begun to appear in the streets of Santo Domingo, the country's capital.

Citizenship by Birth

Although the March 20 agreement is extremely limited, the underlying litigation before the inter-American human rights system involves weighty issues. Among the most sensitive of these questions is the legal status of the Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants, in particular, their right to Dominican citizenship.

According to the Dominican Constitution, all persons born on the country's territory are Dominican citizens. Nonetheless, ethnic Haitians born in the Dominican Republic are systematically denied citizenship. The denial often begins in the hospital itself, with an infant's birth, when medical staff refuse to provide undocumented Haitian parents with proof of the birth. Later in a child's life, the obstacles to obtaining proof of citizenship become progressively more onerous.

The Dominican authorities justify their failure to respect the constitutional rule of citizenship by birth -- a rule known under international law as jus soli -- by relying on another clause in the Dominican Constitution. Carving out a narrow exception to the general rule that all persons born on the territory are citizens, the constitution provides that citizenship does not extend to the legitimate children of foreign diplomats or to the children of foreigners who were "in transit" in the Dominican Republic at the time of the birth.

The meaning of the "in transit" clause, in particular, is much disputed. This might seem surprising, since the provision appears straightforward enough at first reading, hardly the stuff of great interpretative debates. In normal usage, any reasonable definition of persons "in transit" in the Dominican Republic would cover people who are briefly in the country while on their way somewhere else. The plain meaning of the term is further reinforced by the country's migration regulations, which state that "in transit privileges" will be conceded to foreigners who enter "with the principal intention of proceeding through the country to an exterior destination." The regulations further specify that a "period of ten days will normally be considered sufficient to allow passage through the Republic."

In Perpetual Transit

Nonetheless, the "in transit" exception has been stretched to cover people whose stay in the Dominican Republic extends far beyond ten days. In a breathtaking misreading of the constitution's language, the Dominican authorities have repeatedly claimed that all undocumented Haitians are, by definition, considered to be "in transit." People who have lived in the country for years, even decades, are thus squeezed into a category designed for brief and casual visitors.

Lessons for the United States?

Under the Fourteenth Amendment, the United States grants citizenship to all children born within its borders, regardless of their parents' status. Yet over the years proposals have emerged to misconstrue or ignore the Fourteenth Amendment's strictures and deny citizenship to the children of illegal aliens. Most recently, representative Brian Bilbray (R-California) has introduced draft legislation to this effect, although it has never come to a vote.

The restrictive citizenship proposals put forward by opponents of illegal immigration echo the constitutional and policy debate in the Dominican Republic. In next week's column, I will discuss the implications of the Dominican experience for the United States.

Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. She is the author of a report on the Dominican Republicis treatment of Haitian immigrants, which will be issued this Thursday. Her previous columns on immigration and international human rights issues may be found in the archive of her columns on this site.

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