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Dominican Republic denies birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants

Thousands — and potentially hundreds of thousands — of people born on Dominican soil to illegal immigrants are now being told that they aren't citizens.

The Dominican government has undertaken a $100 million modernization of its civil registry system, funded mostly with money borrowed from the World Bank. It has scanned and digitized about 20 million documents, everything from birth certificates to marriage licenses — and, in the process, discovered that massive fraud was committed under the old system.

“There were people who used their neighbors’ identification to register a child because they wanted that child to be Dominican,” said Miguel Angel Garcia, who is overseeing the modernization process for the government.

The government is investigating those cases and, in the meantime, denying new documents to anyone whose file has been red-flagged. Those born to Dominican parents or immigrants legally in the country will receive their documents. However, if the investigation reveals the person was born to illegal immigrants, they will not qualify for citizenship, he said.

In the case of Jose Remie, that means none of his nine children are citizens. A Dominican recruited him from his home in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to work as a bracero in the sugarcane fields back when sugar was still a thriving industry in the Dominican Republic. He came with his wife, Betilia Altimie, in the 1970s, he said.

“I had nine children here and worked my whole life for them,” he said, speaking the rudimentary Spanish he learned in the fields.

They settled in one of the hundreds of Dominican "bateyes," small villages built for cane workers. Most bateyes have charming names like Esperanza (Hope); Remie lives in one called Bienvenido (Welcome). In reality, they’re homes to the poorest of the poor.

On a recent day in Bienvenido, children tossed a can around a dirt road barely wide enough for a car, not that many residents owned one. Merengue music blared from the local convenience store. Old men took refuge from the blaring sun under the few scraggly mango trees.

Remie’s family gathered in the dirt yard in front of his two-room plank shack. Two children lay in a little shack about the size of a doghouse in the yard. It was an additional bedroom hastily constructed when the family grew too big for their homes, Remie’s daughter Elena explained.

“None of us can work because the first thing the employer asks for is a cedula,” she said, referring to the national identification card. “But none of us can get a cedula because we can’t get any documents.”

Elena Remie can’t register her children in the local school, either, even though education is supposed to be available to all children, regardless of their legal status in the country.

He’s one of what Gamboa, from the Open Society Institute, calls “a generation of children that will be potentially stateless.”

Sabino, of the government, said any children born to undocumented immigrants will be registered as foreigners so they can apply to for citizenship in their parents’ home country.

In Elena Remie’s case, there is no home country to pass on to her child.

“I’m not Haitian. I’ve only been there once to visit my grandmother,” she said. “I’m Dominican, even if they tell me I’m not.”