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Thousands — and potentially hundreds of thousands — of people born on Dominican soil to illegal immigrants are now being told that they aren't citizens.
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic — Carmen Augustine de Santana and Juan Jose Santana were born and raised not far from each other in this Dominican city.
Teenage sweethearts, they married and started a family. Juan gained prominence as a doctor, a local political leader and director of the city’s public hospital. Carmen raised their four children and traveled regularly to the United States to visit family members.
“We’ve spent all our life here. We still live in the same city where we were born,” she said.
Yet, in the eyes of the Dominican government, she is not Dominican and has never been.
Thousands — and potentially hundreds of thousands — of people like her who were born on Dominican soil to illegal immigrants are being told that they aren't citizens. Since they've lived in the Dominican Republic their whole lives, most aren't recognized as citizens of any other country either.
“These are doctors, lawyers, baseball players. And they’re having their citizenship taken from them.”~Lilian Gamboa, Open Society Institute
On the day she spoke to GlobalPost recently, Augustine for the third time applied for a certified copy of her birth certificate, which she needed to renew her passport. They told her that her mother was an illegal Haitian immigrant and, therefore, she did not qualify for Dominican citizenship, she said.
“The first time we went, it was a shock. We have never even been to Haiti. But they say that she’s not Dominican because her mother was Haitian?” her husband said. “At this point, I’m indignant. I’ve spent my entire career working for this government and I’m ashamed of it now. I’m ashamed of the … xenophobia.”
In 2004, the Dominican government adopted immigration laws that denied birthright citizenship to the children of people “in transit” at the time of the birth. Dominican authorities applied “in transit” to illegal immigrants, largely Haitians. After legal challenges in domestic and international courts, the government last year adopted a new constitution that clarified that people born to foreigners in the country illegally would not receive citizenship.
Now, the government is retroactively applying those laws to the children of Haitians who crossed the porous border decades ago to work. As a result, thousands have been denied documents by the government, including copies of birth certificates and national identity cards. Those documents are necessary to do everything from marry to attend college to travel.
Human rights groups say that an inordinate number of cases are the children of Haitians. The International Organization of Migration estimates as many as 1.2 million Haitians live in the country. The government’s own estimates vary widely. The U.S. State Department said this year in its annual human rights report that “hundreds of thousands of Dominican-born persons of Haitian descent were functionally stateless.”
For some, it’s a new twist to the long-troubled Haitian-Dominican relations. Although they share Hispaniola, an island that’s slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina, the two countries are vastly different economically and culturally.
Those differences infamously led former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo to order a massacre of Haitians living near the border in 1937. Historic tensions have flared recently as the Dominican government clamped down on the border and began mass deportations in the name of preventing the spread of cholera, which has killed nearly 5,000 in Haiti since October.
The government is using citizenship laws to “try to erase Dominicans of Haitian descent from public records,” said Marselha Gonçalves-Margerin, advocacy director at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights in Washington, which funds Dominican organizations that work on the issue. “These were people entitled to citizenship under the constitution at the time of their birth. You can’t retroactively apply a law that strips someone of their citizenship.”
The question of whether a person should automatically qualify for citizenship in the county in which they were born has sparked a similar debate recently in the United States.
Some Republican senators want to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to limit birthright citizenship, claiming hordes of immigrants sneak into the U.S. just to give birth. A Pew Hispanic Center study found the claim to be largely erroneous.
Outside the Western Hemisphere, most of the world does not grant citizenship based solely on birth. But in the Americas, being born in a country is widely considered enough to gain citizenship in that country.
The Dominican Republic is a snapshot of what happens in a country when the rules are changed, rights groups said.
“In terms of the statelessness, the Dominican Republic is one of the worst cases in the world,” said Liliana Gamboa, a Dominican-based representative for the Open Society Institute, which has funded legal challenges to the Dominican citizenship laws. “There are people who have been here for decades. These are doctors, lawyers, baseball players — people who could be the next leaders of the country. And they’re having their citizenship taken from them.”
In an interview, Dominican officials acknowledged that people were having difficulty obtaining documents. But they rejected the notion that the children of Haitian immigrants were targeted.
“The idea that it’s based on race or that it’s somehow a racist system is wrong,” said Brigida Sabino, director of the civil registry’s division in charge of issuing the documents. “The truth is that as many Dominicans have experienced this problem as foreigners.” The office was not able to provide statistics.
In early May, Haitian President-elect Michel Martelly discussed the issue with Dominican President Leonel Fernandez. “It’s a serious problem when a person does not know where he comes from or where he belongs,” he said in an interview with El Caribe newspaper.