On September 23rd, 2013, the Dominican Republic’s highest court stripped citizenship from thousands of its own people. This act—which predominantly affected Dominicans of Haitian descent—sent thousands fleeing to the border, either out of fear or by force, and left countless others facing an uncertain future. This citizenship crisis is the latest affront to a community long oppressed in their adopted country.
History: Inequality and Opportunism
The Dominican Republic and Haiti share an island in the Caribbean and a complex—and often tense—history. For almost a century, Haitians have crossed over the border into the Dominican Republic, many in search of economic opportunities. From planting miles of sugarcane to helping erect skyscrapers, Haitians and people of Haitian descent have long been an important labor force that comprises the backbone of the Dominican economy.1
Although many of them helped promote commerce in the island nation, Haitians and people of Haitian descent—who make up the largest ethnic minority group in the country—have long been seen as pariahs. They are among the poorest in a country with an extreme divide between the very rich and the very poor, and have dark skin, which is seen as inferior by some parts of Dominican society.
During the Great Depression, when the country suffered a sharp economic decline, a few elites in the government blamed the country’s woes on Haitian migrants. This boiled over into violence in 1937, when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo unleashed his military against the migrant population. His troops rounded up, beat and hacked to death men, women and children—simply because they were Haitian. In all, Trujillo slaughtered as many as 20,000 Haitian civilians in a campaign of terror that came to be known as El Corte, or “the Cutting.”
The anti-Haitian sentiment fostered under Trujillo’s decades-long rule continues to fester in today’s Dominican Republic. Politicians and elites continue to portray Haitians as a strain on the Dominican economy who hold the country back from advancing its ambitions—creating deep divisions within society.
In recent years, despite rapid economic growth that has fed booming construction, manufacturing and tourism and made the rich richer, the country had failed to extend prosperity, health and quality education to much of its population. People of Haitian descent suffer the brunt of this inequality. Many of them live in bateyes, the poor districts originally designated for plantation workers. Notoriously neglected by the government, these communities often lack schools, clinics and other necessary public services.
In addition, the Dominican military, police and immigration officers have periodically detained and deported Haitian immigrants, tearing apart countless lives and families.2
A Citizenship Crisis
The Dominican Republic has long granted automatic citizenship to children born on Dominican soil. But in 2010, the Dominican government passed a constitutional amendment that halted that policy. Then in 2013, a constitutional court decision went one step further: It retroactively stripped citizenship from anyone born in the country to non-citizen parents between 1929 and 2010—creating the largest existing population of stateless people in the Americas.3
Dominicans of Haitian descent bore the brunt of these far-reaching edicts and the climate of confusion and fear that followed. Countless Dominicans of Haitian descent suddenly feared being pushed out of the only country they have ever known. Rendered stateless, they were denied freedom of movement, the right to due process, and access to essential government services like health care and education.
An International Outcry and a Climate of Confusion and Fear
In the years since the citizenship edict, activists, world powers and international bodies—from the U.S. to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—have called on the Dominican Republic to reverse its decree.
Under this global pressure, the government passed Law 169-14, which could enable some people who were affected by the constitutional court ruling to claim citizenship, and others to register as foreigners with the possibility of being naturalized after two years. In addition, the Dominican government in 2013 unveiled a new immigration policy—the National Regularization Plan—which purportedly offered a path to legal residency for undocumented migrants and immigrants.
Law 169-14 divided Dominicans of Haitian descent into two groups based on whether or not they possessed documentation. Group A consisted of people born in the country to undocumented parents who were at some point added to the civil registry; while Group B included those who were born in the country but never obtained birth certificates or other documents to substantiate their citizenship.
Unfortunately, these two policies only added to the climate of panic and confusion. The groupings felt divisive and people sometimes weren’t sure which policy applied to them. The policies also failed to deliver. Many people in Group A did not have their citizenship automatically restored as promised. And most of Group B couldn’t register because they didn’t receive the information they needed to comply with the law or they couldn’t afford the fees—leaving many in legal limbo. Some activists believe the registration requirement acted as a trap to identify undocumented residents.
Meanwhile, Haitian immigrants that had been living in the country since 2011 were given a deadline of June 17th, 2015, to register under the “regularization” plan—or be deported. Although authorities extended the deadline to August 1st, 2015, many people lived every day in fear that they would be kicked out of the country.
When the deadline passed, the government began deporting many Haitian immigrants—and some Dominicans of Haitian descent were also caught in the dragnet. Over the course of the next few weeks and months, authorities expelled hundreds of Haitians by force while thousands of people fled in fear across the Haitian border.
Many individuals affected believe the citizenship crisis was inspired by deep-seated and historical racism, and have called it a first step toward “ethnic cleansing.”
“The people they kicked out are black and poor people,” one Dominican activist told AJWS, and compared the expulsion of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent to Trujillo’s massacre of Haitians decades ago. “It’s just unfortunate that here in 2016 we’re still having to deal with and denounce these [kind of things].”
Fallout in the Streets
AJWS’s grantees report that the 2013 court decision and local media coverage painting Haitians in a negative light gave way to an increase in anti-Haitian sentiment in the streets—and violence. In early 2015, a group of Dominicans burned a Haitian flag in the city of Santiago, and vandals scrawled anti-Haitian graffiti reading “Haitians get out” across walls in Santo Domingo.4 In February of that year, events took a deadly turn as Dominican authorities found the corpse of a Haitian man hanging off a tree in a public park. Several AJWS activists fighting on the frontlines of this struggle have reported receiving threats and facing harassment.
The law also curtailed civil liberties. Bureaucratic hurdles prevented tens of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent from getting the necessary paperwork to vote in the May 2016 presidential election.5
AJWS Grantees Effecting Change
Ever since the news of the ruling broke in 2013, AJWS sprang into action to stand up and speak out. We have supported the growing movement built by local grassroots groups that are fighting for equality.
Over the past year, organizations such as Reconoci.do have stepped in to help those on the brink of deportation by showing up at sites where they were detained and broadcasting their plight to the world through social media. As a result of this, several individuals were released hours later. The group has also led “know-your-rights” training sessions in communities affected by the citizenship crisis and helped Dominicans of Haitian descent obtain legal documents to avoid expulsion.
Even organizations not specifically doing citizenship work are standing in solidarity with those who are, signing petitions, participating in protests and recruiting the assistance of the experts when they come across people who need help getting identification cards or having their civil rights recognized. For example, Centro para la Educación y el Desarrollo (CEDUCA, “Center for Education and Development”), which is a member of Dominican@s por Derecho—a network that brings together civil society organizations standing up for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent—has been helping youth and others living in bateyes, barrios and rural communities understand and exercise their rights to services such as jobs, education and medical care. In addition, the group has been encouraging the mainstream media to broadcast messages of tolerance and inclusiveness in an effort to raise a new generation that sees all Dominicans as equals.
Advocacy in the Dominican Republic and in Washington
In the wake of the citizenship crisis, AJWS helped provide a platform to local partners so their voices could be heard in the highest echelons of the U.S. government. AJWS empowered Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA, “the Movement of Haitian-Dominican Women”) to lobby in the House and Senate in Washington, D.C., marking one of the first times that congressional offices heard directly from those affected by the citizenship crisis. Following this exchange, members of the Senate wrote to the State Department expressing grave concern for those rendered stateless in the Dominican Republic. In August 2015, the State Department issued its first public statement on this crisis, urging Dominican authorities to respect the rights of all people within its territory.
AJWS also deployed a delegation of rabbis to the Dominican Republic as part of the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship in January 2016, to witness this crisis with their own eyes and then use their influence as respected Jewish leaders to urge American diplomats to intervene. The group conveyed their concerns alongside AJWS grantees in a meeting with the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. Upon returning home to the U.S., the fellows raised awareness about the crisis in their congregations, on college campuses and by penning op-eds in news outlets throughout the country. Some of the rabbinic fellows later lobbied with AJWS staff in Washington, D.C., in March 2016, resulting in an open letter from members of Congress to the State Department to take more steps to put pressure on the Dominican government to address the citizenship crisis.
To amplify our advocacy, AJWS worked with grantees to shine a light on this crisis through coverage in The New York Times and Washington Post.
As the plight of Dominicans of Haitian descent remains uncertain, AJWS remains committed to ensuring equality for everyone in the country.
1 “In Exile.” New York Times Magazine. 13 January 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/magazine/haitians-in-exile-in-the-dominican-republic.html
2 “‘Illegal People’: Haitians And Dominico-Haitians In The Dominican Republic.” Human Rights Watch. 2002 April 4. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2002/04/04/illegal-people/haitians-and-dominico-haitians-dominican-republic
3 “Americas leaders must wake up to drama of ‘ghost citizens.’” Amnesty International. 14 June 2016. Available at:
4 “US rabbis speak out against Dominican Republic’s citizenship law,” Al Jazeera. 28 January 2016. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2016/1/28/us-rabbis-speak-out-against-dominican-republics-citizenship-law.html
5 “Dominicans of Haitian descent deserve to vote in upcoming elections.” American Jewish World Service. 12 May 2016. https://ajws.org/blog/dominicans-haitian-descent-deserve-vote-upcoming-elections/