The international community has risen up in near unison to denounce the impending humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic. Today, more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent face the prospect of becoming stateless and deported to Haiti, a country that many don’t know and have never lived. Will the government of the Dominican Republic listen to the collective opposition of international activists and transnational communities?
The government’s intransigence risks turning the small Caribbean nation into a human rights pariah–something that could potentially have an impact on the island’s political ties in the region and its economy.
In 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Court declared that undocumented Haitian immigrants were not citizens. The decision affected thousands born in the Dominican Republic who have never set foot in Haiti before (children and grandchildren of migrants from Haiti). The decision rendered an estimated 200,000 stateless and subject to potential deportation.
In an effort to address it, the executive established a process to document Dominicans of Haitian descent in the country. But the program was overburdened and overstretched and provided too narrow a window of opportunity for immigrant families to produce the paperwork. June 17th was the deadline announced for registering as citizens—a deadline that passed and still left an estimated 200,000 Haitian immigrants and their families stateless and potentially deported.
This is clearly a human rights issue. International organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Robert Kennedy Center for Human Rights declared the 2013 ruling a violation of international human rights laws. Unfortunately, the Dominican government refuses to see it so, and has even declared that it has never been a party to the Inter-American human rights system, whose court handed down a decision demanding the decision’s reversal.
But the decision and policy stems from a deeper history of racism in the Dominican Republic against Haiti and Haitians. The two nations share one island, Hispaniola, separated by a border, and Haitians provide important labor to the Dominican Republic, working in the sugar cane industry and tourism. Yet, despite the clear ties connecting the two nations, or perhaps because of them, Haitians serve as convenient political scapegoats. One of the most brutal episodes in this history was in 1937, when the dictator Rafael Trujillo orchestrated the “parsley” massacre, so named because the persecution and massacre of an estimated 20,000 Haitians hinged on their ability to pronounce “perejil” (parsley) properly.
Yet, Haitians continued to migrate to the Dominican Republic, many remaining to work and have children and grandchildren born there. The belief was that by being born there—irrespective of the legal status of the parents—the children were Dominican citizens… that is, until the 2013 ruling.
Citizenship does not automatically confer national belonging and full inclusion; nor does it always coincide neatly with legal paperwork for minorities like Dominicans of Haitian origin. This is not just a Dominican issue; it is a global one. Many nations are struggling to respect pluralism and ensure tolerance for minorities, who, despite legal status, continue to suffer violence for perceived racial, religious, or cultural differences. The recent tragic events in Charleston SC, show all too powerfully the persistence of racism and intolerance. And yet, the national response to Charleston, including the campaign to take down the Confederate flag, reveals the power of collective action and protest to challenge intolerance.
The Dominican Republic’s deportation policy has also sparked protests overseas, with Dominican Americans and Haitian Americans living in the U.S., including prominent members of both communities like the authors Junot Díaz and Edgwidge Danticat, organizing to challenge what they see as a racist policy, including a travel boycott.
Not everyone, unfortunately, shares this view. Last week in New York, we also saw a Dominican American counter-protest group that denied racism and supported the policy as a matter of law enforcement and border security.
Why do these protests matter? Historically, both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have important ties not just with one another, but with the U.S.—histories of migration that have created important diasporas in cities like New York and Miami that play an important role in life on the island Hispaniola. These transnational communities maintain important connections with their nations of origin—social and economic ties supported through visits and remittances that bridge the geographic distance separating them. The central idea of transnationalism is that despite the distance separating two places, these connections create a shared community that transcends national borders, through continued social, economic, and political ties.
While it may not be surprising that Haitian and Dominican diaspora communities care about what’s happening in their home nations, we also see other groups taking on this cause. Indeed, the June 20th protest in New York included the Black Lives Matters movement, demonstrating that just as racism affects people across borders, the activism required to challenge that racism also transcends such boundaries.
Such transnational activism offers an important corrective to dangerous forms of nationalism and xenophobia. While globalization and transnationalism do not erase national borders or sovereignty, these transnational diaspora communities and activism challenge retrograde racist policies that affect us all. And though the D.R. claims this is not racist but about enforcing order, revoking citizenship and creating deportation camps has a human cost that should concern us all, policymakers and citizens alike.
Throughout history, we have seen that political violence never stays within national borders.
As of this writing, the Dominican Republic has announced that it will be systematic and orderly in the way it proceeds with the implementation of this law and the deportation. Even if this is true, does a prolonged, orderly deportation process necessarily make it just?
We have images of Haitian Dominicans waiting in lines and being deported—images that that demand our attention and concern. But as time passes, and especially if the deportation does indeed become systematic and orderly, we may not have the same perception of acute crisis—though these human beings will continue to be degraded and uprooted.
Whether 200,000 (or more) Haitian Dominicans are deported en masse, or in smaller groups over a longer period of time, the profound impact on their lives and communities will remain. We need to keep up the pressure on policymakers to urge the Dominican Republic to do everything in its power to avoid the humanitarian and human rights crisis regardless of how systematic and orderly it becomes.