Generations of Haitian Descendents Made Stateless in the Dominican Republic

Maria crossed the border into the Dominican Republic in 1979. Tired of searching endlessly for work in her home town of Thiotte, Haiti, she settled in Aguas Negras permanently to work illegally in the local coffee industry.
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Written by Erin B. Taylor

Maria crossed the border into the Dominican Republic in 1979. Tired of searching endlessly for work in her home town of Thiotte, Haiti, she settled in Aguas Negras permanently to work illegally in the local coffee industry.

Her daughter, Fredelina, was born two years later in a tiny house made of sticks and mud. Although both her mother and her father were illegal immigrants, Fredelina was automatically entitled to citizenship under the Dominican constitution.

Yet Maria never got Fredelina a Dominican birth certificate. Having official personal identification just didn't seem very important. By law, no child can be denied a primary school education, and most of the time they were too busy working in the fields for her to attend classes. An ID card isn't needed to pick coffee, sell beans in the market, visit hospitals, or even to cross the border into Haiti.

Fredelina has also been inconsistent in securing the third generation's legal status. Fourteen-year-old Judy, the eldest of Fredelina's three children, is the only one with a Dominican birth certificate. Unlike her younger siblings, whose right to attend secondary school depends upon the goodwill of local authorities, Judy's legal status means that she can finish her schooling securely and apply to attend a Dominican university. She can travel anywhere in the Dominican Republic without fear of being detained.

Why did Fredelina register just one of her children? Because by the time the others were born, unofficial Dominican policy towards "Haitians" had changed. Hospitals and municipal centers increased the barriers to obtaining birth certificates or identity cards. People who could not afford to pay a lawyer now found it difficult, if not impossible, to secure their legal rights.

"I wanted to declare my son so that he would have a Dominican birth certificate, but I haven't been able to. At times one lacks the money, the help," Fredelina lamented.

Gaining Haitian identification is far more straightforward. When Western Union told Fredelina that she would need to show personal identification to receive money from her boyfriend living in Punta Cana, she applied for a Haitian ID card and was granted one without fuss. This is despite the fact that Fredelina was not born in Haiti and has never lived there.

But recent legal changes mean that Haitian descendents with Dominican citizenship are no longer secure either. In 2010, the Dominican constitution was altered to refuse citizenship to children born to "transient" parents. A recent ruling by the Constitutional Court has authorized the Dominican government to review records dating back to 1929.

This means that Judy and up to 200,000 other Dominicans of Haitian descent may be stripped of their citizenship and left stateless.

2013-10-25-TaylorEnteringtheDominicanRepubliconmarketdayPhotobyErinB.jpg Entering the Dominican Republic on Market Day, Photo by Erin B. Taylor

This is a shocking blow to human rights in Hispaniola. For decades, Haitian descendants have struggled to gain consistent access to citizenship rights. This struggle has particularly affected families who live and work in sugar cane fields in the east. Residing there for generations, they are not transient in any sense of the word. Their Dominican-born children speak Spanish, identify with Dominican culture, and aspire to make the big league playing baseball.

Yet these children face the possibility of deportation. Many of them are not fluent in Haitian Creole. Most have never set foot in Haiti. If forced to leave, they will need to find a way back. They will become permanent illegal immigrants in their own country.

Residents of the border zone fare somewhat better. Because Haitian Creole is widely spoken among residents of both Haitian and Dominican heritage, Fredelina's children are bilingual. They could-and do-survive without citizenship. But they cannot progress. They will likely be trapped in the border zone and the informal economy, with subsequent generations also excluded from the opportunities that are available to citizens.

"I would like to have my Dominican identity card to vote here, because here is where I eat, here is where I drink, here is where I do everything," said Fredelina.

For her, citizenship is not just about access to services, it is also about participation in civic life. And this is exactly what the Dominican Republic wants to deny to people of Haitian descent.

Haitian labor and trade have benefited the Dominican economy since the early twentieth century, and continue to do so today. Denying citizenship is not about protecting jobs; it is about maintaining access to cheap, illegal labor while excluding people of Haitian descent from the right to shape Dominican society.

Erin B. Taylor is an Australian cultural anthropologist and a researcher at The University of Lisbon. She is the author of Materializing Poverty: How the Poor Transform Their Lives and an editor at PopAnth: Hot Buttered Humanity.