The Dominican-Haitian Dispute Leaves the Most Vulnerable to Suffer

An Haitian girl looks from the window of a vehicle as her family is transported to be voluntarely repatriated in Santo Doming
An Haitian girl looks from the window of a vehicle as her family is transported to be voluntarely repatriated in Santo Domingo on June 29, 2015. Some Haitians have chosen for volunteer repatriation before the start of the deportations of those who do not comply with the Dominican National Reorganization Plan for Foreigners. AFP PHOTO/ERIKA SANTELICES (Photo credit should read ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTO DOMINGO -- Words are weapons in the current human rights debate that puts the Dominican Republic and Haiti, again, on opposing sides of the alley. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, stepped into a verbal minefield this week. A poor choice of words during a CNN en Español interview fed the myth of an international complot -- led by France, the U.S. and Canada -- to fuse both nations. "It's an island ... generally, when there is an island, there aren't two countries; there's just one, even if it's a big island like Australia. This is a small island with two countries ... with very different social realities, with very different economic realities, with very different political realities ..."

History is not on an Organization of American States-lead dialogue's side. Dominicans have yet to heal from OAS' Inter-American Peace Force, established after the second U.S. military intervention in our country, in 1965. As for our history with Haiti, early on, being Dominican was defined as the opposition to all things Haitian. Unlike most countries in the Americas, our independence war was not fought against colonialist Spain, but against Haitian occupation from 1822 to 1844.

A lot, of course, has happened since then. At the risk of oversimplifying a history of dispute and exploitation by both countries' elites of the Haitian people -- including the Haitian government's acceptance of money paid by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo to buy pardon for the 1937 massacre, or the permanent human trade promoted and validated by governments of both sides of the island -- I'll go on with the current situation. But some context is important.

The Dominican government reacted to Almagro's statement by refusing all dialogue with Haiti through O.A.S., a move that greatly pleased the ultranationalists. Ultranationalism has flourished since a constitutional court reviewed the case of one woman of Haitian descent and, in September 2013, ordered the revision of all national birth records from 1929 to 2007, and declared that those born of foreign undocumented parents could not be recognized as Dominican. The fear that tens of thousands would be left stateless and deported, mainly to Haiti, has unleashed an international discussion in which facts have been battered and speculation has thrived.

"There is so much historical baggage between the Dominican Republic and Haiti that mutual mistrust is no surprise."

There are so many intricate and complicated legal processes happening at the same time that confusion is only normal. There is so much historical baggage between the Dominican Republic and Haiti that mutual mistrust is no surprise.

The court's decision split public opinion in the Dominican Republic. Much of the national debate since has revolved around whether people born before the 2010 constitutional amendment that conditioned birthright citizenship for children of immigrants to their parent's immigration status, have a right to Dominican citizenship. Polled by Gallup in February 2014, 68 percent of Dominicans said that Haitians who came to work in sugar cane plantations since 1929 deserved an amnesty that legalized their status.

Those who have publicly opposed the ruling and defended Haitians have been cast out as traitors and insulted on social media, TV and radio. Small crowds have arisen, calling for "death to the traitors," and some journalists have received threats on their lives.

But, unlike some claims from the international community, there has been positive action from the Dominican Republic's government to try and solve the mess created by the court's retroactive ruling. In fact, minuscule but highly influential and vocal extreme-right groups that had been allies to the government party for the past 20 years left their political coalition when congress passed an amendment to the constitution to allow President Danilo Medina to opt for reelection. They had been actively opposing the executive's measures on both immigration and citizenship issues.

"Those who have publicly opposed the ruling and defended Haitians have been cast out as traitors."

A presidential decree two months after the court's ruling ordered a national regularization plan for foreigners -- a first in Dominican history -- that registered 288,486 immigrants, according to official reports. Amidst widespread criticism of the complications and costs of a process that was supposed to be free and expedited, the Dominican government has cited as an important obstacle the lack of documentation of origin of thousands of Haitians and the incapacity of the Haitian authorities to deliver any documentation, even after several extensions.

Nearly 40,000 Haitians had returned voluntarily to their country by early July. With supervision by the International Organization of Migrants, a partner in the regularization process, no formal and documented denunciation of violent or mass deportations has yet been made. It's important to say that the comparisons that have been made to concentration camps and Nazi Germany are just preposterous.

A human drama, however is unfolding. After years, even decades, in the Dominican Republic, many Haitians fear deportation and are deciding to go back to their troubled land of origin, a country that is not showing much enthusiasm for their return. Worried about a massive influx on returnees that can overflow into the other Caribbean islands that have demonstrated a repressive side when it comes to handling undocumented migrants, all fingers point to the Dominican Republic for a solution.

A different problem, the status of Dominicans of foreign descent after the court ruling, was addressed with a law pushed by the executive and passed by an executive-controlled Congress in 2014. It mandates that all persons of foreign-born parents registered as Dominicans have their status recognized and their documents restored. Around 55,000 benefited, and so will their descendants. With this, Dominican authorities say, the statelessness issue is solved. Not quite.

"The children of undocumented migrants simply cannot comply with the law, mostly because they don't have the means."

That group, mostly of Haitian descent, had been struggling for years to get birth certificates to register their own children, to access healthcare or jobs and to enroll in college. Some could not pursue careers abroad because they couldn't get a passport. Their lives had been on hold for almost a decade since the National Registration and Elections Board (Junta Central Electoral) determined, by an administrative memo, that people with "odd names" had to be examined to verify the authenticity of their registration.

Another group, however, is at the core of human rights organizations' worries: the children of migrants that were never on the books. By law, they were obliged to register as foreigners and could apply for citizenship by naturalization in two years. Only 8,755 registered. Just this week, a high official at the presidency told me nobody knows how many people fall under that category and why they didn't register. The children of undocumented migrants are quite possibly the poorest, more marginalized of all Dominicans of foreign descent, and they simply cannot comply with the law, mostly because they don't have the means. After the deadline, they are subject to deportation.

Unless diplomacy works some magic, stalled conversations between Haitian and Dominican governments -- both in the midst of presidential and congressional campaigns -- will not resume. But there's more to this than just politics. It's the lives of thousands that suffer from the consequences of these policies that should be on the forefront of this discussion. Back to back, Haitians and Dominicans will just continue to postpone the solution to a problem that hurts the people of two nations whose destinies are bound together.

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