Maria Julia Deguis in Los Jovillos, Dominican Republic. She and other people… (Manuel Diaz / Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — The recent decision by the highest court in the Dominican Republic to cancel the citizenship of three generations of residents is meeting a firestorm of protest, with human rights advocates warning of a humanitarian nightmare for the entire Caribbean region.
The Dominican Constitutional Court, citing the country's 2010 constitution, retroactively stripped the citizenship of people born after 1929 to parents without Dominican ancestry, declaring that they were residing in the country illegally or with temporary permits.
More than 200,000 people, most of them descendants of Haitians, may in effect be left stateless. Government officials and others could deprive them of a host of basic rights and services, including education and employment, activists say.
"To be stateless means you don't have the right to vote, to go to school … freedom of movement … [access to] travel documents," Sarnata Reynolds, who handles statelessness issues at Refugees International, said Thursday during a panel discussion in Washington about the Dominican ruling. "You're stuck in a legal limbo and in a location where you can't resolve your situation."
Some fear the Dominican Republic will embark on a mass deportation effort. But to where? Haiti and other Caribbean states would be under no obligation to recognize people who were born in the Dominican Republic as anything but Dominicans.
After years of legal dispute and with Dominicans of Haitian descent already feeling prejudice, the court's ruling in late September came in connection with a case involving Juliana Dequis Pierre, born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents in 1984. When she attempted to apply for a voting card, authorities seized her birth certificate and told her she was not Dominican, her lawyers say. Her attempts to challenge those actions led to the high court's judgment.
"This is likely one of the most discriminatory decisions ever made by a superior tribunal," said Santiago A. Canton, director of the Partners for Human Rights program at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which joined Dequis' legal team. The RFK center branded the ruling a case of "massive state-sponsored xenophobia."
The court's judgment in September expands the definition of "in transit," a category of foreign-born people allowed to live in the Dominican Republic. It would consider people who have been in the Dominican Republic for decades "in transit" and their Dominican-born children and grandchildren ineligible for citizenship.
A spokesman for Dominican President Danilo Medina said the government, stung by a wave of fierce criticism, would seek a "coherent and humanitarian" solution that attempts to respect people's rights. But the government also insisted that it had to obey and respect the highest court of the land.
Eduardo Jorge Prats, a Dominican attorney and leading constitutional law expert, told The Times from Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, that the high court erred by ignoring judgments from regional bodies, foremost among them the Inter-American Human Rights Court. That body in 2005 told the Dominican Republic that it could not use the nationality of parents as pretext for taking citizenship from their children. The inter-American court's rulings are binding.
At a meeting this week of the governing council of the Organization of American States, known normally for vapid diplomatic niceties, comments from Caribbean countries were particularly pointed.
Haiti said the Dominican court's action was "truly alarming," and it was joined in the criticism by the 15-member Caribbean Community.
La Celia Prince, the representative of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and current spokeswoman for the Caribbean bloc, condemned the ruling because it "strips tens of thousands of people of rights which they have enjoyed from birth and gives them no recourse to appeal."
"It directly impacts the lives of fellow human beings, citizens of our hemisphere and more specifically of our diaspora," she said.
The Dominican Republic's representative reportedly tried to have the meeting canceled.
"The neighbors are unhappy," Canton said.
Haiti, especially, already a badly dysfunctional country, could not absorb the arrival of tens of thousands of people who don't speak its language, he said.
Although many people inside and outside the Dominican Republic see the measure as racist and xenophobic, it has significant support in some domestic quarters among those who resent a large Haitian presence and what they see as outside interference, Jorge Prats said.
"In the legal community, the decision has little support," he said in an email. "But there is certain support in the population because conservative, authoritarian elites have promoted an anti-Haitianism since the times of Trujillo." Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.
In 1937, though Haitians had been working the Dominican sugar cane fields for generations, Trujillo sought to drive them out by ordering the so-called Parsley massacre, which killed thousands of Haitians. A century earlier, it was a Haiti newly freed by rebelling slaves that brutally occupied the Dominican Republic.
Tension between the two countries that share the Hispaniola island has festered continuously, with Dominicans especially begrudging Haitian immigrants, who have arrived in droves, driven by extreme poverty, political upheaval and, in 2010, one of the deadliest earthquakes on record.