Discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic is a borderless issue

Haitian women carry goods on their heads bought in the Dominican Republic, at the border town of Malpasse, Haiti.
Haitian women carry goods on their heads bought in the Dominican Republic, at the border town of Malpasse, Haiti.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Public statements by elected US officials, including New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, as well as a series of protests in Washington, New York, and Miami last week are part of an emerging international movement against immigration policies that target people with Haitian ancestry living in the Dominican Republic.

These responses preempt what some predict to be the impending deportation of tens of thousands of Dominicans with Haitian roots, after a deadline for migrants to register for temporary residency papers or apply to have their citizenship reinstated passed on June 17. As Vice News reports, some Haitian families have already begun to voluntarily self-deport; meanwhile, the Dominican military is quietly building detention centers at Dajabon, at the Haitian-Dominican border.

The treatment of Haitian migrants and their offspring in the Dominican Republic is part of a broader struggle for the rights of immigrants who are often exploited for cheap labor yet marginalized socially and used as political tools.

Indeed, politicians are increasingly finding success in capitalizing on nationalist sentiments through the age-old tactic of blaming immigrants for all of the country’s economic woes—lack of jobs, strained public resources, high crime, etc. A similar trend is evident in Europe, the US, and other nations with increasingly diverse populations and growing immigrant communities. One can look no further than Arizona’s notorious “show me your papers” law that forced many documented and undocumented immigrants to flee the state out of fear of being targeted by government officials and vigilantes emboldened by institutionalized discrimination against Latino immigrants.

Similarly, the Dominican Republic’s immigration policies and growing anti-Haitian sentiment on the ground are succeeding in creating a great sense of insecurity for thousands of people of Haitian descent. The Dominican government has reported that over 17,000 have “voluntarily” left the country for Haiti following a June 17 deadline. As deportations accelerate, thousands more are expected to flood Haitian border towns, leaving everything that they know behind for a country that they have never lived in and where they have no family ties. A sizable number only speak Spanish, and will undoubtedly have a hard time securing viable employment in Haiti where Creole and French are the official languages.

Some who defend the controversial policy say it’s an issue of law and order, and that the only individuals who will be affected are Haitians living in the Dominican Republic illegally. But that’s not the case. A 2013 ruling by the DR’s constitutional court stripped an estimated 200,000 people of their Dominican citizenship, as the legislation denies citizenship to the offspring of undocumented immigrants, even if born on Dominican soil. The bill is retroactive to 1929, thereby invalidating the nationality of several generations of mostly Haitian-descendent individuals and families.

Drawing wide criticism for its violation of human-rights principles, stemming from a history of systematic discrimination against people with Haitian heritage, the Dominican Republic instituted a “regularization program” for individuals born in the country with at least one parent who was a citizen or legal resident. The program was also supposed to provide undocumented migrants an opportunity to register for a two-year residency permit, and eventually apply for naturalization. And Although 56,000 people have had their citizenship restored, many caught in the wide net of the immigration law remain in limbo and are under imminent threat of expulsion from the country. While some 250,000 have started the application process, only 300 residency permits have been issued. Denial of birth certificates and other identity documents to people with Haitian ancestry has been a longstanding practice that has facilitated the current crisis. Without official documentation of their birth in the Dominican Republic, many affected by the ruling have become stateless. Additionally, human-rights groups have sounded the alarm about the potential targeting of people with darker complexions (those who “look Haitian”).

“The Dominican Republic is using the guise of immigration control to push thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, including ‘black-profiled’ Dominicans out of the country,” said Giles Charleston, co-founder and board member of the Association of Haitian Professionals. “It is not just an issue pertinent to DR and Haiti, but a larger issue concerning justice and human dignity that should compel every person around the [world] to stand up and not sit on the sidelines,” Charleston told Quartz.

Understandably, some Dominicans hold a different view. In response to an article I wrote in February, I heard from Dominicans who resented what they see as interference in their sovereign affairs. When mayor of New York Bill de Blasio spoke out against the new deportation law at an event on June 21, a handful of protestors attempted to shout him down. They scolded him for spreading perceived misinformation about Dominican migratory law, brandished signs reading “Bill de Blasio Makes Everything a Racial Matter,” according to The New York Times.

But one positive development that has come out of what appears on the surface to be a growing rift between Haitians and Dominicans is renewed dialogue and a recognition that there there is a complex history and relationship that exists between the two nations. Ulises Jorge Bidó, a Dominican American who lives in Maryland contacted me in February to express his concerns with what I had written, along with wider media coverage that he characterized as painting an incomplete picture.

“Dominicans get really passionate about this when they hear or read the accusations that the only reason that this is happening is because of racism,” he wrote to me. “Yes, we have our ‘nationalist’ fringe who have some crazy ideas that are rejected by the overwhelming majority of Dominicans. Like any country on Earth, you will find prejudice among some of us.”

Meanwhile, other members of the Dominican community have expressed direct opposition to the new law. Groups like We Are All Dominicans are leading efforts to call out what they see as endemic racism and xenophobia in their home country. They have organized several protests in New York including an upcoming July 1st action and produced an activist toolkit and #BlackLivesMatterDR reading list.

Indeed, many who have expressed their concerns about the situation in the Dominican Republic view themselves as global citizens with a shared stake and interest in the humane and dignified treatment of all people, regardless of their immigration status or ethnic or racial background.

Bree Newsome, the heroic activist who this past Saturday climbed a flag pole on South Carolina’s state grounds and removed a Confederate flag flying there made this link in her statement explaining why she took the courageous step that she did: “I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic,” she said. “To all those who might label me an ‘outside agitator,’ I say to you that humanitarianism has no borders. I am a global citizen.”