:: By Angelique V. Nixon, Ph.D ::
“No one can be hood-winked as to the reason and the purpose for this kind of discriminatory legislation. Within the region we have an obligation to speak and we cannot allow such inequities to go without our strongest condemnations.” – P.J. Patterson
Caribbean people across the region and its diaspora have been responding with righteous (and necessary) outrage over the recent ruling by the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic that essentially strips away the birthright citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. While the ruling puts into question and possibly revokes automatic citizenship of anyone born to non-citizens since 1929, it overwhelmingly targets people of Haitian descent, who have been living in the DR for generations — estimated to be over 200,000 people or over 80% of those born to non-citizens/migrants. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the governments of Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have raised concerns about and condemned the ruling; and Caribbean citizens (inside and outside the region) are calling upon CARICOM to take stronger action and to defend Dominicans of Haitian descent and their rights to citizenship. There are two petitions calling on Caribbean governments and CARICOM to take a stronger stand and action against Dominican Republic: one through Avaaz.org and Change.org.
As critics of the ruling argue, this latest assault on Dominicans of Haitian ancestry must be placed within the context of the Dominican Republic’s long history of racism and violence against Haitian people. This history is rooted in anti-black and imperial racism and colonial violence that has fueled the tenuous relationship between these two countries that share an island as well as the lingering effects of slavery and colonialism. (For an overview of this history, see the PBS Documentary “Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided.”) Many of the people affected by this recent ruling are descendants of Haitian migrants who were brought to work in the sugar industry near the border starting in the early 1900s. These Haitian migrants ended up working in deplorable conditions and were subject to intense discrimination and abuse; and for generations, their descendants have experienced much of the same. And now their birthright citizenship status may be legally revoked. The recent ruling that specifies 1929 as the start date of retroactively questioning (and possibly taking away) citizenship recalls the dictatorship period of Rafael Trujillo, who brutally ordered the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians and Haitian Dominicans along the border. This massacre and subsequent mass deportations were waged to claim land along the border zones and to “cleanse” the DR of people of Haitian descent — i.e. understood then and now to be dark-skinned and Black, while Dominicans even though a racially mixed population identify more with their Spanish/European colonial heritage often denying their African heritage. (For more about this history, see Randal Archibold’s article “Dominicans of Haitian Descent Cast Into Legal Limbo by Court” published in the New York Times; and also, Myriam Chancy describes this history in her piece “Apartheid in America: Are You Haitian?” – published/reposted on different news sites.)
And these were not isolated incidents. As the Organization of American States (OAS) and human rights groups have reported over the past decades, Haitian agricultural workers (recruited continuously to work in the canefields or bateyes), along with Haitian Dominicans are deported regularly and treated inhumanely, particularly during times of economic trouble. (Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz joined forces to write about this grave issue in their op-ed piece titled “The Dominican Republic’s War on Haitian Workers” published in The New York Times, 20 Nov 1999.) Quite often Dominican politicians and media use “the Haitian problem” as a scapegoat to distract the public from other issues. Given this horrific history, it is no wonder that many of us question the motives of this recent ruling. It is near impossible to consider the issue of migration and citizenship of Haitian Dominicans without thinking about this history of violence and deportations, and how it has affected relations among Dominicans and Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian ancestry since.
As Myriam Chancy outlines in her article “Apartheid in America: Are You Haitian?” the recent ruling reflects a series of measures in the DR since the 1980s that routinely deny Dominicans of Haitian descent access to identification and paperwork needed for basic access to resources like public education and healthcare. Migrant workers and their children have been systematically identified as “in transit” and their rights as Dominicans stripped away slowly over time, which makes an already vulnerable population even more vulnerable. (Specific examples of this have been reported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2010 and explained at length by Chancy: by 2000, Haitian parents were defined as “in transit” and not able to register their children who were Dominican born; by 2004, “in transit” redefined to include those without legal residency; and in 2007, citizenship annulled of individuals born to those without status.) Further, as Chancy argues, contrary to what Dominican authorities have said about the ruling, it is not a way to process the legal standing of those born to non-citizens, but rather, it “makes the persecution of Dominicans of Haitian descent socially and legally permissible.” Hence, the ruling makes them stateless or puts them in legal limbo without status — a violation of basic human rights and in violation of the United Nations Declaration that every person has the right to citizenship. This issue has caused the international community to pay attention: with several articles and reports featured in well-known media; petitions led by Amnesty International, Caribbean organizations, and concerned citizens; and protests in New York outside of the Dominican embassy.
Official statements by the OAS, the United Nations, and human rights organizations urging the Dominican government to protect the human rights of people born and living in the Dominican Republic have caused the DR government to go on a “diplomatic offense.” According to Ezra Fieser in a Reuters report, DR government officials say that they are “upholding human rights” and that the court decision is a “humanitarian way out of legal limbo for thousands of people who are living in the country without access to needed identity documents.” Dominican President Danilo Medina has promised to “implement a clear and transparent migration policy” and provide a path to residency with due process after government officials review the birth registry to determine how many people would be affected.vii This “offensive” was presented at the OAS meeting on 29 October 2013 in response to CARICOM and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights raising their concerns about the ruling.The OAS official response basically affirmed that they must respect the independence and decision making of governments, but that if anyone is being deprived of a nationality then that would be a human rights issue; and therefore, the Commission on Human Rights would be investigating the case. The DR Ambassador to the United States wrote an editorial to the New York Times asserting some of the same, going further to say that the DR should not be pressured by outside forces and governments to change its constitution.
The Dominican Republic’s official response also argues that the DR is not making children of Haitian migrants stateless because Haiti’s constitution grants citizenship to all born to Haitian people anywhere in the world, and therefore these critiques by the international community are unfounded. However, as Myriam Chancy and others have argued, this issue is more complex given that Haiti requires documentation and registration of individuals born outside Haiti in order to establish citizenship; and because so many Dominicans of Haitian descent cannot get access to identification in the DR, this makes the process of establishing Haitian citizenship extremely difficult. More troubling, any mass deportation of Dominicans of Haitian descent to Haiti would overly burden a country still recovering from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, not to mention, many of those potentially affected by this ruling have little to no ties to Haiti as they have lived in the DR their entire lives.
Regardless of the “diplomatic offense” and promises made by the government of the Dominant Republic, it remains clear that this ruling reeks of the colonial and violent history discussed earlier and that protecting the human rights of Haitian Dominicans is actually not what the government is doing. Further analysis of the court ruling and its interpretation of the constitution is certainly needed to make sense of the DR government’s reasoning; but for now, it remains unclear how the DR government will deal with those affected after the registry is checked, nor is it clear what due process will look like. Nevertheless, what we do know is that the ruling places already vulnerable people into a more vulnerable position, and thereby subject to further exploitation as limbo citizens or stateless people are created. Chancy’s interpretation of the reasons for this ruling is worth quoting at length:
“For one, it perpetuates the myth of needing to maintain the DR’s ‘whiteness’ against foreign migration when the majority of its population is mixed. Second, it allows the DR to continue to uphold unjust and exploitative working conditions while denying citizenship to laborers. Third, for those Dominican Haitians several generations removed from an undocumented Haitian parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent, it effectively renders them incapable of making any claims or contributions to the DR’s economic development. Fourth, it denies these individuals and all their progeny of their rights to education, health care, and insurance. These measures therefore not only create civic death but institutionalize its attributes: poverty, illiteracy, lack of identity, in short, non-being.”
This issue of creating civic death is what we need to most be alarmed about in the face of increasing social and economic inequality, forced migration, and environmental challenges facing the region; we are living in uncertain and dangerous times. And while we don’t want to support or replicate neocolonial paradigms upon each other in the region, we must find ways to hold each other accountable for any violations of human rights; and I would further argue that we must find more ethical ways to deal with migration and rights across the region, especially for our Haitian brothers and sisters. (I define the term “neocolonial” as a way to discuss the continued reliance many postcolonial countries have with imperial powers and colonial structures, or what some scholars call dependency capitalism. Because of the history of anti-colonial struggle and interference of the Global North and former colonial powers in the region, independent governments certainly have a right to speak out against these regimes of power. But I argue not as a way to avoid criticism of injustice. Hence, the need for accountability and regional solutions.)
As an Afro-Caribbean person, I feel a great sense of obligation to offer my condemnation to this ruling as many others have done. The work I do as an educator, scholar, community worker, and artist is rooted in the struggle for freedom and equality, especially for people of African descent and communities who are marginalized. I have spoken out regularly against the treatment of Haitians and Haitian Bahamians in my country of birth, the Bahamas, where government policies on “illegal” immigration and the detention of Haitian migrants too often violates human rights. Similar to the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas also deports Haitian migrants regularly and grants very few work permits and rarely (if ever) asylum status, while depending upon the everyday labour of Haitian undocumented migrants.
The Bahamas — somewhat like the DR’s new ruling — also denies rights to the children of migrants, the difference being that children of migrants do have access to birth citizenship rights, which they have to apply for at 18. However, this process can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal assistance. Unlike the DR, Haitian Bahamians do have the right to stay in the country until they turn 18. However, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless after 18 because of the difficulty in securing their status. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized — from slurs and stereotypes to poor treatment at public clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, or people get laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for everyone’s troubles and strapped resources. This resonates eerily with what has happened in the Dominican Republic, and I offer this comparison to remind us of the vulnerable position in which many Haitian migrants find themselves — not only in the DR but also elsewhere in the region. In addition, it is important to note that because of its proximity to the United States, the Bahamian government is often pressured to handle the “problem” of Haitian migrants in its waters, since many Haitian migrants are seeking refuge and better opportunities in the United States and end up in the Bahamas. The United States also regularly deports Haitians, and human rights violations faced by Haitians while in detentions centers are infamous and widely reported. Finally, we must remember that the United States has also played a major role in the underdevelopment of Haiti — through years of occupation, interference, support of dictatorships, and structural adjustment policies that have exploited resources and the working people of Haiti.
Responding to these issues requires a grounding in history/herstory, social justice, and regional solidarity, and developing solutions requires us to work together as a region and forge alliances against former and neocolonial powers while holding each other accountable to a shared vision of justice and equality. It means confronting centuries of exploitation and the fact that decolonization is still in progress. Part of the problem is a lack of knowledge: what we don’t know about the related and connecting histories, and by extension, the related and connected contemporary struggles, across the region. We need to continue to examine how these are all linked to the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Our lack of knowledge is partially due to our education systems but also as a result of silence and fear. How can we work against these silences and fears? How do we develop regional policies that assert migration rights as human rights and fight against deportation and statelessness or legal limbo? How do we support countries in the region in political and economic crisis? What does this kind of regional solidarity look like?
Perhaps it starts with CARICOM in coordination with civil organizations taking action around this issue of migration, citizenship, and rights. Perhaps it can also start with helping Haiti to break free from the chains of debt and poverty. This should not be seen as a handout, but as genuine regional solidarity and public acknowledgment of our commonalities and complicated relations. Haiti’s problems are our problems. The efforts post-earthquake to support Haiti in its recovery did show regional support, but post-disaster re-building has continued to be more of the same low-wage factories and foreign investments coming from multinational corporations. We must develop regionally focused solutions and create economic and political linkages across islands that are economically and environmentally sustainable. Haiti does not exist in a vacuum. It did not suddenly become destitute or mismanage resources on its own. There are many reasons for its condition: tied to the ways in which global capitalism works and how the Global South sustains and keeps the Global North wealthy. Hence, we are all implicated and exploited across the region in these global relations of power — some of us more than others.
A few of the reasons why Haiti is in political and economic crisis, and why it remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere have to do with the violent dictatorships and corrupt governments since the 1960s, but many have to do with structural adjustment programs (through the IMF & World Bank), United States imperialism, and punishment for being the first Black republic in the West and daring to fight and win its independence from France. But Haiti has never really been free or fully independent. And the troubling histories of slavery and colonialism continue to affect our relations across the region. This historical, political, and social context must be taken into account as we try to understand the present, and as we work towards a better future. I envision a future where people do not have to flee and escape their homelands out of fear or poverty in search of safety, basic needs, and better opportunities elsewhere. I envision a future where no one experiences civic death or non-being, where we all can live with dignity and in freedom. I envision a future where Caribbean people have created innovative solutions to our economic, political, and environmental problems. I envision a Pan Caribbean future decolonized and grounded in knowledge of our ancestors, histories/herstories, and myths. I envision a socially just and equal future with open borders and a thriving empowered community, where we love and embrace all the parts of ourselves.
Angelique V. Nixon is a writer, artist, teacher, activist, and poet – born and raised in The Bahamas. She earned her Ph.D. in English specializing in Caribbean studies and women and gender studies at the University of Florida. She is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. Her work has been published widely in academic and creative journals, namely Anthurium, Black Renaissance Noire, MaComere, and small axe salon. Angelique is deeply invested in grassroots activism and is involved with several organizations, including Ayiti Resurrect, Caribbean IRN, and Critical Resistance.