SANTA DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — When I traveled in the Dominican Republic just a few weeks ago, I met Daniela. She is a 17-year-old who has lived her entire life in a Dominican batey — a remote, poor town originally developed for Haitian immigrants who came to the Dominican Republic to work as low-wage laborers on sugar plantations.
The Dominican government discriminates against Dominicans of Haitian descent by denying services — like schools — that it provides to other citizens. There was no public school near Daniela’s batey, so she walked long distances to attend a school run by a local nonprofit organization, Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women.
Daniela persevered, earning a high school diploma, and she aspired to go to college. But this is now a dream deferred, because the Dominican Republic’s top court recently revoked Dominican citizenship from more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent. All, including Daniela, are at risk of being deported from the only country that has been their home.
This cruel ruling is motivated by racial prejudice and ethnic discrimination dating back centuries, and it has dashed Daniela’s hopes. She is gripped by the fear that if she applies to college in the Dominican Republic, she will be asked for identification.
If an authority sees that Daniela is a Dominican of Haitian descent — or chooses to categorize her as a Haitian migrant — she could have her identity cards revoked and be deported to a country where she has never lived and where she doesn’t speak the language, placing enormous barriers to her chances of ever attending college.
The Dominican government no longer considers Daniela a citizen, simply because of her family’s Haitian heritage.
The ruling of the court clearly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes a right to equal protection against discrimination and a right to nationality and identity. It also means that newly declared “former citizens” must worry whether they can stay in the Dominican Republic — let alone vote, get a driver’s license or access basic services that the government provides, like public school or health care.
Discrimination is not new for Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. The police routinely arrest or harass them. Even before the court ruling was announced, young women like Daniela feared Dominican military officials and police. Stories are told of young women picked up by soldiers for no other reason than their dark skin; women who suddenly found themselves deported to Haiti, unable to speak the French language or reach their families back home.
News coverage has focused on the international community’s alarm at the new ruling, but less attention has been given to people who are working to do something about it. Grassroots organizations are at the center of this citizenship battle, organizing hundreds of activists to protest outside the constitutional court.
Some of the groups are also providing services to people who are now trapped by the decision. They’re providing legal assistance to affected families, representing them in court to challenge the deportation process. One group has filed 42 cases with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a judicial body that serves to uphold human rights in the Americas.
For now, Daniela’s college plans remain on hold. She’s volunteering as a health educator, trying to help her community however she can. There are innumerable needs to fill.
In the batey, I saw a volunteer walk up to a teenage girl whose baby was visibly ill, with a distended belly and skin marked by a pronounced rash. The volunteer learned that the girl would not take the infant to a government-run clinic out of a deep fear that her baby would be deported to Haiti.
For decades, the US government has focused on abuses of human rights in Cuba and other countries throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. For Daniela’s sake, and for the sake of the more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent just like her, we must express our outrage. Let’s not let another human rights calamity be abetted through our indifference.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service, a human rights organization that funds grassroots groups in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti.