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Interview: Lives on Hold for the Dominican Republic’s Haitian Minority

A crisis in the Dominican Republic is coming to a boil, as tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are in danger of being expelled to Haiti or of facing lives of effective second-class citizenship in the Dominican Republic, without the documents they need for their daily lives.

The issue began in 2013, when these Dominicans were stripped of their citizenship based on a retroactive reinterpretation of provisions in the Dominican constitution concerning nationality law.  Although the government passed a law in 2014 to resolve the problem, bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of political will have left this category of Dominican citizens unable to secure the necessary documentation to enroll in school or college, get jobs in the formal economy, register children at birth, or travel around the country without risk of expulsion. Many have already been swept up by police and troops based on racial profiling and forced over the border to Haiti, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, We Are Dominican: Arbitrary Deprivation of Nationality in the Dominican Republic. Others live in daily fear of being rounded up and pushed out. A Human Rights Watch fellow, Celso Perez, talks to Kathy Rose, a Human Rights Watch editor, about what’s happening to Dominicans of Haitian descent, and their charged relationship with other Dominicans.

Celso, you are Dominican. Were you aware of problems facing Dominicans of Haitian descent growing up in Santo Domingo?

No, it wasn’t until I was older that I began to seriously look into this issue. Certainly you knew about Haitian migrants, but in certain social spheres you could easily isolate yourself from this reality.

I did hear nationalistic rhetoric about how Haitians were coming to the country and were becoming a social burden—the same kind of rhetoric you hear in other places like Europe and the U.S..  My parents didn’t have a particularly conservative view of this situation, but we didn’t really talk much about it at home. They have now become interested on my take on the issue, given this research.


How did your own views come to be shaped?

I went to Boston College, a Catholic Jesuit school, for my undergraduate work, and there was a strong social justice ethos on campus. A lot of my professors and mentors encouraged me to engage in pressing political and social problems both inside and outside the classroom. Initially, I came to human rights through LGBT issues.

In law school, I worked on other human rights issues concerning immigrant rights. I represented several clients in the U.S. immigration system. I studied and worked on various issues related to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, including the 2010 Haitian cholera outbreak. I encouraged Human Rights Watch to look into the specific issue of this report – expulsions of Dominicans of Haitian descent - last winter, when we knew deportations were going to start this summer.

I come to these issues maybe even a bit selfishly because in some way they have been a part of my personal experience. I am the grandson of Spanish immigrants on one side and the great-grandson on the other, so in a sense I was associated with a separate community growing up in the Dominican Republic. I am also an immigrant of sorts in the U.S., which has obviously shaped my understanding of this situation as well.


How did you go about your research?

A big part of my work was done with the help of with, a robust movement of Dominicans personally affected by 2013 decision, mostly young Dominicans. They have been organizing around this issue for several years because even before the 2013 decision, people were having problems because of discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Once the court decision came, and the government responded with the 2014 law, they were on the front lines, educating communities, and getting people registered so they could get on the path to naturalization. The government campaign to get people who had been affected by the court decision re-registered had been tepid, and to this day a lot of people in rural areas in particular don’t know that there were opportunities to be naturalized. Local groups like have lists of people who had been able to register and also lists of people who had not been able to. So I was in touch with them and they were able to put me in touch with people willing to talk about what they had experienced.

Like, there were other groups who were involved in implementing the law, who helped me with this research: the Movimiento Socio Cultural, the Trabajadores Haitianos, the Centro de Desarrollo Sostenible, and the Jesuit Migrant Services, to name a few.

I spent the better part of this year talking with people in the Dominican Republic about their experiences with this situation. At the same time, I was staying with my parents, and it completely blurred the line between fieldwork and home. I was researching this situation, but this was also where I grew up.


What stories did you find most compelling as you interviewed people?

Two kinds of stories stood out. First were the stories of the people who were completely outraged because of the bias experienced in the deportation process, the complete lack of due process – people who had been loaded onto a truck and carried off to a deportation holding center without being asked for documents. Sometimes family rushed to help them before they were forced over the border, but in other cases, and other times people were forced across the border.

I remember talking to Cecilia and Andres, for example, who were on a truckload of people coming back from a funeral when police officers  grabbed the whole truck and took them to one of the border deportation towns. Just like that. They only made it back because a local government official intervened. The truck was his and he didn’t want to lose it.  

But for me, a lot of the very dramatic stories also came from people who were born and raised in the Dominican Republic but unable to have their status recognized—leaving them with nothing but a shadow life of second-class citizenship.

I remember one young woman. She was only 17 but had been kicked out of school two years ago when this whole issue came up because of the court decision. She could earn enough to eat, but without going to school, she simply couldn’t move forward. Her life is on hold indefinitely.

And just like her a whole generation of children and young adults are caught in this mire through no fault of their own. It is something these people will carry the rest of their lives. There is no guarantee they will ever get papers—even Haitian papers, though they couldn’t get those because they aren’t Haitian and it wouldn’t help them anyway. They are Dominican, they “look” Dominican and talk Dominican but the government tells them they are not.


Haitians face police while waiting outside the Ministry of Interior and Police to register in Santo Domingo, June 16, 2015.   © 2015 Reuters

What is it going to take to solve the problem?

Solving this is up to the president and the ruling party. There’s no reason they can’t take what they did in 2014 and create a better process for restoring citizenship and all the rights that go with it. Our challenge is to create the political will for this to happen. The cost is low for the government because the nationalists and their narrative concerning how Haitians are becoming a “social burden” has lost some sway in the last six months.

I can’t help but think about the 2013 decision. It’s a bad decision and should be fixed. The president of the Dominican Republic still has lawful means to solve the process, to declare his commitment to the inter-American system and to implement laws that will remedy the nationality situation.

The 2014 law is not perfect but it is better than nothing. The president was handed a terrible decision by the Constitutional Tribunal in 2013, and he did try to solve the problem, but progress so far has not been sufficient. Now he needs to go on to make sure people are effectively restored their citizenship.

It is important to treat the issue dispassionately. People get heated up and make baseless accusations, generalizations – like all this talk about ethnic cleansing and Dominicans beings racist. Obviously, there is racism in the Dominican Republic like there is racism anywhere else in the world. And we do have a very problematic history of racism and violence towards Haitians. But for generations, Haitians and Dominicans have also been living side by side. It’s an exaggeration to say all Dominicans are racist. You also have racism in the U.S., but not all Americans are racist. But we did document very clear cases of racial profiling. People were detained on account of their “Haitian” appearance, without an opportunity to present identification documents. It was only after family or local human rights organizations intervened that they were released.

At the same time some people say there is no violation of international law, that this is a question of immigration, and that all these people are Haitians. That too is disingenuous. We need to acknowledge that for generations Haitian migrants have been coming to the Dominican Republic to work—oftentimes brought by our own government or private corporations. These people have built families in the country and for generations their children have been considered Dominican. It is preposterous to deny that. To now look back and retroactively take away their citizenship is clearly a human rights violation.

In a way having been raised in the Dominican Republic but having studied law abroad gives me both a national and international perspective. I am Dominican and I can view this as a Dominican. I am not trained as a Dominican lawyer, but I’ve consulted local experts sufficiently to understand the issues in depth. But I am also an international lawyer trained in human rights law. I know that at the end of the day, this issue can be resolved with a truly Dominican solution that conforms to international standards.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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