In the DR, ‘Winning the Battle,’ But With Still Much to Do

Jasmine Huggins | June 13, 2014

Young Dominican men of Haitian descent in a border community where CWS provided emergency assistance during floods. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

Young Dominican men of Haitian descent in a border community where CWS provided emergency assistance during floods. Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

At last, some progress – though limited – for Dominicans of Haitian descent and their struggles in the Dominican Republic.

You may remember that earlier this year, a Dominican court ruling started a process which would have, in effect, “de-nationalized” hundreds of thousands of Dominicans, previously recognized as citizens, whose parents, grandparents and forebears were Haitian migrant workers in the DR. The legislation was roundly condemned in the DR and internationally – including by CWS and its local partners in the DR.

New legislation presented by President Danilo Medina last month, and then signed into law after it was approved by the Dominican Congress, was a partial step in the right direction toward protecting the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

The law establishes two categories of persons. In Group One are persons born in the country of “nonresident foreigners” who were registered in the Dominican civil registry. The law now formally validates these birth documents. For persons with birth certificates this is a significant step, given that since 2007, electoral officials have been questioning the validity of these birth certificates and, indeed, had started proceedings to annul hundreds of them.

The new legislation means that persons with existing documents should now have their Dominican nationality recognized. This law does not so much repeal the earlier legislation as sidestep it, by focusing less on nationality and more on the validity of the birth registration process. About 25,000 persons are in this category, having previously been identified in the civil registry.

In Group Two are persons who were born in the country to “parents with an irregular migratory status” who were not registered in the civil registry. The total number of persons in this group is expected to far exceed the number in the first group. Persons in this second group must now either register in what is called the Book of Migrants or be registered as migrants in the so-called regularization plan. After that, there would be a possibility – though not a guarantee – of pathway to naturalized citizenship.

Denisse Pichardo, from the CWS partner Caminante, insists that non-registered children who were born in the country up to 2010 are constitutionally entitled to citizenship. But she still hails the new law as a significant step forward. “We are winning the battle, but we still have to work for the rights of all affected persons,” she told me.

What does the law mean in practice? Let us compare two persons who are directly affected by this new law. One person – let’s call him Jean – is a Dominican of Haitian descent who works for a reputable local church based organization. Registered in the civil registry by his parents, his nationality is now recognized. Whereas just only just weeks ago, his citizenship was at risk following application of the earlier 2013 court decision of 2013, passage of this new May 2014 law ensures recognition of his nationality. This is lucky, as Jean’s livelihood depends on him having a valid passport in order to make the frequent border crossings which his job requires.

Not so lucky is our other colleague from a like-minded, civil society organization. Marisa – as we will call her — was also born of migrant Haitian parents in the DR more than 60 years ago. Although the then-constitution granted nationality to her, Marisa’s birth, through no fault of her own, was not officially registered on time. Despite having lived in the country all her life and having no current ties to Haiti, she may now have to register as a “migrant.” Then, she may be naturalized. Maybe. As things stand Marisa has no valid identity documents and cannot travel outside the Dominican Republic owing to previous attempts made by the Dominican government to investigate her nationality.

Many consider this new law to be the beginning of a good political solution in a complex situation which has vexed President Medina for the last eight months. This new law has received widespread support from a cross section of local Dominican political, business and public sectors, and represents some progress in the political landscape – sharply divided since the constitutional court ruling – and hereby rebuilding some much-needed social and political consensus.

Winners and losers have emerged, however, from this political compromise. Rule of law and international conventions established to safeguard nationality rights, and particularly the rights of children, have been far from fully served. The proposed Naturalization and Regularization Laws still uphold the practice of denying birthright citizenship to persons who are eligible for it, thereby further institutionalizing discrimination against this specific group of people on the basis of their parent’s migratory status. As a result, the human rights and law community understandably still consider this new legislation to be, at best, a less-than-wholesome political compromise and at worst, continuing illegality now being dressed up as a just victory.

About one-fifth of the Dominican children under the age of five remain unregistered in the Dominican civil registry – not all of which are children of migrant Haitian parents. But for years, Dominicans of Haitian descent have been prevented from registering their children’s birth by civil registrars throughout the country, as a result of discriminatory practice well documented by human rights organizations. With this new law, within one family, some children may have their Dominican citizenship recognized while their siblings may have to be registered as foreigners or migrants, depending on whether they were registered in the civil registry or not.

Lorenzo Mota King, Executive Director of CWS partner SSID, welcomes the law. But he cautions that not all Dominicans will have access to the documentation now required to guarantee their status as citizens. “We have to work quickly to accompany this population so as to ensure that they understand the law and what papers they need to safeguard their rights,” he said.

Now, it remains to be seen how the law will be applied, how individual cases will be handled by the authorities and who benefits. Meanwhile, CWS will continue to advocate for the rights of all persons whose rights and entitlements are still in question.

Jasmine Huggins is the Washington-based policy and advocacy officer for Haiti at CWS.

CWS recently signed on to a letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations regarding the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act of 2013. Read the letter here.