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The Crisis of Citizenship in the Dominican Republic

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We are still reeling over the massacre of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This act of terror was another reminder we are living in dark times in Black America – the new nadir. This is not just occurring within our national borders; it is, at the very least, hemispheric, as the crisis in the Dominican Republic shows.

June 17, the same day of the Charleston massacre, was the Dominican Republic’s deadline for “undocumented” Haitian immigrants and people living or born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian descent to register with the government and “regularize” their status. With the deadline now past, these people, and everyone living or born in the Dominican Republic with Haitiain ancestry – or those who might look like they could be Haitian — are now under imminent threat of mass deportation and relocation. And although this may not sound like a racial crisis of deadly proportions, it is when we consider the Dominican Republic’s anti-Haitian policies (recall the ethnic cleansing policies of Nazi Germany and are decidedly anti-black). There is an insidious subtext behind the crisis in the Dominican Republic that should concern all of us.

As of Wednesday, nearly 200,000 people of Haitian descent still had not been able to register with the government. Now buses contracted by the police and the military wait to “repatriate” throngs of Haitian descendants, many of whom have never lived in Haiti and some of whose families have been living in the Dominican Republic for generations. The government has built “centros de acogida,” shelters that could easily be described as concentration camps along the country’s border, waiting to receive deportees when the order is given to remove those who have not been able to register.

This crisis is rooted in decades of conflict between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola. The 1937 Parsley Massacre (El Corte) is arguably the most notable moment in this bloody history. That year, president Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina ordered the massacre of about 20,000 people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic – and once again blackness was a deciding factor that marked who would live and who would die. The current expulsion order and looming deportation threat reminds us the threat of genocide still lingers in Dominican air.

Leading up to the deadline, crowds grew larger in front of the Ministry of the Interior, the most frequented registration site in the country, in the capital of Santo Domingo. On Wednesday, hundreds of people were standing in line to get inside. Those who managed to enter “still had hope,” but those who waited outside were in limbo. Most had been there for several days. Some had been coming every day for a week and still couldn’t register.

Muriel, a young man who waited several days and finally had to pay someone to get inside the ministry says he has paid between $500 to $1,000 pesos ($11 to $22) to enter. In many ways the chaos has become profitable. The Dominican government claims the regularization process is “free of charge,” but the bureaucratic steps it takes cost anywhere from $100 to $200. The cost of registration further exacerbates the situation for the poorest. After paying hefty fees to gather the necessary paperwork, many cannot afford to pay the additional “entry fee” at the door and must simply wait, as new groups who do have extra money move in front of them in a desperate, haunting process.

Papito, 19, lives in the Dominican Republic with his sister and two brothers, all younger. His parents left for Haiti when he was 12, and he has been in charge of his siblings, sending money to his parents, who haven’t been able to return because of documentation. There are many young Haitians who take this burden. If Papito is deported, his younger siblings will no longer have someone looking after them. For now, he, like thousands, waits for a resolution. Although he submitted all his paperwork in October and was supposed to receive a response within 45 days, he has yet to receive anything besides a receipt. Now he lives in fear of deportation raids.

The issue of anti-black discrimination looms in the shadows of this predicament. On June 12, while registrants waited in line, a pair of police officers walked among the crowd poured pepper powder over the people they identified as Black in the line, some of whom were women and children. As people protested, cried and wiped their eyes, officers laughed and said “This stuff is good for colds.” Although many people in the Dominican Republic are of African descent. One of the distinguishing markers Dominicans use to distance themselves from Haitians is blackness. To be blacker is to be Haitian, to be less educated, to have less worth. Thus, despite the fact many of the very police officers who harass registrants are of African descent, they engage in acts of anti-black discrimination to distance themselves from blackness and perform the white aspirations of the nation.

The recent order to deport non-registered people of Haitian descent from the Dominican Republic has been mounting for some time. In 2004, the Dominican Republic changed its migration laws to deliberately exclude the offspring of undocumented Haitians from the right to citizenship. The 2004 law directed officials to categorize offspring of undocumented migrants as being “in transit,” calling into question the citizenship status of nearly 200,000 people. In 2010, a new constitution included language to expressly exclude, “foreigners in transit or residing illegally in the Dominican territory” – a move that definitively denaturalized the children of undocumented Haitian immigrants.

In September 2013, the Constitutional Tribunal decided the new constitution would apply to immigrants born after 1929, retroactively revoking the citizenship of thousands of people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic. In response to international outcry, on May 2014, the Dominican Congress approved Law 169-14, through which it sought to acknowledge the citizenship of those already registered. Only 8,755 people were able to register by the final February 2, 2015 deadline in this tedious process, potentially rendering stateless thousands of other citizens. Through presidential decree 327-13, signed on November 29, 2013, a separate process was established to document Haitian citizens who arrived in the Dominican Republic before October 2011. Those who participated in this process could establish legal residency and avoid deportation. This is the process that expired on June 17. Now the world must watch and wait to see what the government’s next move will be. Let’s hope we are not witnessing another moment of genocide.

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Christen A. Smith is assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence and Performance in Brazil (forthcoming, University of Illinois Press) and is a Public Voices Fellow. Twitter: @profsassy.


Jheison V. Romain is an M.A. student in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and has been living and researching in the Dominican Republic during the crisis. Twitter: @jvromain.