LOS JOVILLOS DE YAMASA, Dominican Republic — When Jenny Sarita Emanier Previlma finished high school, she was the pride of this small rural town, one of only a handful of high school graduates. She dreams of continuing her studies and becoming a doctor. But because Emanier, 24, lacks a national identification document, she cannot enroll in a public university. “I feel sad," she says. “My friends who I finished school with, they’re already finishing university.”
Emanier is one of an estimated 210,000 people who have been stripped of their Dominican citizenship because of their parents’ immigration status. She was born in the Dominican Republic, but her mother emigrated from neighboring Haiti in 1982 with a government-issued work permit.
In September, the Dominican Constitutional Court ruled that another resident of Emanier’s town, Juliana Deguis Pierre, 30, did not have the right to Dominican citizenship because her parents were “irregular” migrants. It also ruled that the findings in the case should be applied not only to Deguis but to all descendants of irregular migrants — with or without proper documents — born in the country since 1929.
The court specified that Deguis’ parents — Haitians who crossed the border with government permits to work in the sugarcane fields and have lived here for decades — were “in transit.” Under the constitution in place at the time, children born in the Dominican Republic were granted citizenship unless they were born to diplomats or people in transit, a term generally applied to people passing through the country for fewer than 10 days. But the September ruling broadened it to mean those without legal permanent residence.
Los Jovillos, where Emanier was born and raised, is a batey, a town built for sugarcane workers. The sugarcane is now gone, but the community remains, a sleepy collection of small colorful homes sitting off a potholed dirt road. Three hundred and sixteen families live here. Some residents travel to work in construction in Santo Domingo, 28 miles away; others grow corn, beans and fruit in converted sugarcane fields.
Many from younger generations have been caught up in the legal battle. While the ruling, which cannot be appealed, has shocked many Dominicans, it legalized actions the state has been carrying out for many years. Since the 1990s, thousands of people have been refused national ID cards, necessary to work, register children, get married, open bank accounts, attend public universities and participate in many other civil activities.
Emanier made it halfway through the application process. When she was 18, she filled out the necessary paperwork. But when she went to pick up her plastic ID card, the office staff refused to give it to her, saying she was ineligible because of her parents’ nationality.
Opponents describe the impact of the ruling as widespread denationalization. The government disagrees. “The Dominican government did not denationalize anybody,” says Ambiorix Rosario, a representative for the country’s migration office.
To the government, people like Deguis and Emanier, born to foreign parents, should never have received a birth certificate. The fact that they did was a bureaucratic mistake the court decision attempts to rectify.
The ruling was also meant to deal with the large population of immigrants — mostly Haitian — in the country, whose presence the government sees as a problem. For decades, tens of thousands of people from impoverished Haiti have crossed into the comparatively wealthy Dominican Republic, some illegally and others under a confusing array of binational treaties. Tensions have mounted in the last 15 years.
Now the ruling has spurred an international backlash from prominent human rights organizations, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR). The United States, Venezuela and other countries, as well as international organizations like the Caribbean Community, are pressuring the Dominican government to find a solution.
Human rights lawyers included Emanier’s case in an appeal to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which then ordered the Dominican government to protect her and the other appellants from deportation and to give them temporary documents guaranteeing their rights. The government has not provided the papers, though deportations are down.
Dominican President Danilo Medina has promised for months to present a plan in response to the verdict; the court ordered that a “regularization” plan be presented within 90 days. There are rumors that the plan will have a naturalization option for people affected by the ruling, but advocates for the denationalized strongly resist that idea, saying it will relegate people like Emanier to second-class citizenship. Another option would be to immediately reinstate people’s citizenship, which would undermine the court decision and alleviate international pressure but anger Dominican nationalists. Seven months after the ruling, a plan has yet to materialize.
Years of appeals
Without the sugarcane fields that lured thousands of Haitian migrants and fueled the Dominican Republic’s economic growth during the last century, Los Jovillos has a dilapidated feel. Wood homes tilt precariously, as though they could collapse in a heavy downpour. Peeling painted shutters are clear signs of the passage of time since the sugar industry’s heyday in the late 1970s, before it was privatized.
“This society has a minimum of development. It entered the capitalist world through sugarcane. The ones who allowed the Dominican Republic to enter the market with sugarcane are the workers. Our parents had a huge impact on that,” says Antonio Pol Emil, director of the Dominican Haitian Cultural Center in Santo Domingo and the son of Haitian parents. “How do they treat the children of them as not worthy? They do this on discrimination.”
Like Emanier and Deguis, Pol, 63, a member of the San Pedro de Macoris city council, has been affected by the ruling. He has held a Dominican passport for more than 30 years, he says, but was sent to the passport office’s legal department when he tried to renew it this year. He says he was ordered, against protocol, to present his birth certificate: “People in front of me didn’t have to. People behind me didn’t have to. Only me.”
Pol says he could have obtained his passport “through friends,” but he chose not to, missing three scheduled trips abroad as a result and instead speaking out publicly on the issue.
In her home in Los Jovillos, Emanier speaks Spanish to her 3-year-old daughter, Miledy. They live with Emanier’s boyfriend, who is Dominican. Her high school graduation portrait is proudly displayed on a wall in the front room. Miledy should be eligible for Dominican citizenship because of her father’s status. But Emanier says she cannot register her daughter until she gets her own papers. She says that she worries about what will happen when Miledy reaches school age and that she doesn’t want to have any more children because of her legal limbo.
Deguis, whose landmark case brought her out of a quiet life with her four children in the batey, is a reluctant icon. She applied for an ID card in 2008; the electoral board’s denial set off years of legal wrangling.
Shortly after the September ruling, she was fired from her job as a maid when her new employer belatedly asked to see her ID. Deguis has been unable to find another job, in part because of her lack of papers but also because of her celebrity.
She is furious at her situation, but she is also exhausted. At a court hearing in April, Deguis sat, diminutive and silent, behind five human rights lawyers who were fighting the electoral board’s attempt to annul her birth certificate. When the judge ordered a 10-day recess, the entourage trooped out, and Deguis found a bench beneath the staircase in the bustling court building, kicked off her white pumps and lay down, rubbing her aching head. Deguis even had a court hearing on her birthday this year.
“She’s tired. That’s what they want, to make us tired,” says Juana Leison Garcia, one of Deguis’ lawyers.
Citizenship cases have been piling up since the 1990s, when the country’s central electoral board started withholding documents, for seemingly arbitrary reasons, from some Dominicans of Haitian descent. At the time, those actions were for the most part illegal.
In 1998, in the first legal challenge to these practices, lawyers from the Movement of Dominican Haitian Women brought before the national court and, later, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the case of Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico. The two were born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents who had been refused copies of the girls’ birth certificates, preventing them from enrolling in school.
In what would become a pattern, the national courts ruled against the children, while the international human rights court ruled that the state violated their right to nationality.
A 2004 migration law legalized some of the electoral board’s practices, and updates to the constitution in 2010 specified that children born to illegal residents from that time forward were not Dominican nationals. September’s court ruling made that policy retroactive, rendering stateless people born and raised in the country.
The rulings are driven by nationalism, racism and fears of a Haitian invasion, advocates say. In its decision, the Constitutional Court pointed to a 2012 survey that counted 668,145 Haitians and their descendants living in the country — 6.87 percent of the Dominican Republic’s population.
But strong nationalist views are limited to a tiny elite, many analysts say. Observers accuse the press of aggravating tensions between Haitians and Dominicans by highlighting conflicts and frequently quoting prominent supporters of the verdict, such as the archbishop of Santo Domingo, Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez, and conservative political leaders such as Marino Vinicio Castillo Rodríguez and Roberto Rosario Márquez, head of the electoral board.
“The great problem here is this unholy alliance between the conservative press, the conservative church, the political sphere and the economic sphere,” says Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, who leads the UNHCR’s Dominican Republic office. He says the hard-line supporters are few (“You can count them on two hands”) but they are people with political pull.
You can’t do anything without identification. You can’t study, work, travel, access the health system. It’s a social death. This situation creates a lot of civil deaths.
Antonio Pol Emile
director, the Dominico-Haitian Cultural Center
That said, many Dominicans believe there are too many Haitians in the Dominican Republic. In a January poll, 83 percent of Dominicans said they supported a ban on Haitian immigration. But resentment is directed mostly toward new immigrants: In the poll, 58 percent of respondents said children born in the D.R. to undocumented immigrants should be considered Dominican.
Deguis is adamant about the issue. “It’s not that I feel Dominican. I am Dominican,” she says. “I was born here in the Dominican Republic, and all my documents are from here … I have never been in another country.”
She says the worst part of her legal limbo is the impact on her children. She cannot register them as Dominican, and she worries about their prospects.
If the Dominican government does not grant citizenship to those affected, Vargas Llosa warns, “the problem will continue to grow year after year, and in 10, 20, 30 years, you may have an absolutely huge number of stateless persons in this country.”
Pol says the situation has already created a “paralyzed” generation and worries about the psychological impact on people like Deguis. She barely speaks Haitian Creole, stumbling over her words and mixing in phrases in her native Spanish. “What would I do in Haiti?” she asks.
“It’s an extremely serious situation,” says Pol. “You can’t do anything without identification. You can’t study, work, travel, access the health system. It’s a social death. This situation creates a lot of civil deaths.”