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In Dominican Republic, An Emotional Fight Over Citizenship


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to take some time now to focus on the Caribbean. In a few minutes, we'll talk about why a group of Caribbean nations is seeking reparations from former colonial powers in Europe, and you'll also hear why reparations may not mean what you think it means.

But first, we want to turn our attention to a debate in the Dominican Republic. Nearly 25,000 people living there could lose their citizenship because they are descendants of Haitians. A Dominican court recently upheld a change to that nation's constitution that invalidates the citizenship of Haitians who migrated there in the 1930s. The decision has prompted an outcry from human rights groups and calls to boycott Dominican tourism. Here to tell us more about this is Jacqueline Charles, Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. Welcome back, thanks so much for joining us once again.

JACQUELINE CHARLES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Jacqueline, you know I'm going to ask you - first of all, what's behind this, but I certainly want to know why now?

CHARLES: Well, let me just say the first thing, you know, I know that the Dominican Republic just recently published some report and they said 24,000. But the reality is that you're talking about tens of thousands according to human rights officials and others because the latest census in the Dominican Republic says there are at least 100,000 children of Haitian immigrants or Haitian migrants who are not registered, who do not have official documents. So that, again, speaks to the outrage. But there have been a lot of assumptions about why now.

And some of the things that have been said, or some have wondered who've been following this acrimonious relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the years, point to the fact that recently things have not been so rosy. They haven't been great. I mean, there's an ongoing trade dispute between both nations. And earlier this year, we saw that Haiti enforced a ruling that they had in terms of Dominican eggs and chicken coming into the border. They've publicly - the prime minister has publicly spoken about the concerns about the contraband that's happening in Haiti from the Dominican products and the uneven trade balance between two nations. And we've seen some Dominican officials, ambassadors even refer to those tensions in respect to this particular ruling.

MARTIN: So is it seen as retaliation for trade issues? Or is there something behind - more than that?

CHARLES: Well, some view it as a retaliation, but the reality is is that there has been this long-standing tension between both countries. You know, in fact, when you go into the Dominican Republic, you know, people talk about the fact that they celebrate their independence from, you know, quote-unquote, Haiti as opposed to Spain. And over the years we've seen that relationship basically like a seesaw. Sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down.

You know, the Dominican Republic, for instance, the private sector was very much involved in terms of financing the recent presidential elections in Haiti. They were the first responders after the earthquake that, you know, almost destroyed, you know, part of the country. But then, since then, the relations have not been so great. And so when people are looking at the timing of this ruling, they raise that issue. But the fact is is that this issue has been on the table for a number of years now. And what we're seeing, finally, is this ruling by the Constitutional Court in the Dominican Republic that cannot be appealed, and it affects a lot of people.

MARTIN: What does the government say? What does the government of the Dominican Republic say is its justification for enforcing this? And one has to assume that there is not the custom, as in the United States, or the law is in the United States because of the 14th amendment to the Constitution that if you are born within the nation's borders, you are - you have a sort of a right to citizenship. And so, clearly, that is not the case in the Dominican Republic. But what does the government say about its justification for seeking this ruling and enforcing - attempting to enforce this at this time?

CHARLES: Well, Dominican officials are saying that it ends the uncertainty for children of immigrants, and opens the door for them to apply for residency and eventually citizenship. Although, you know, we don't yet see that plan in place. I think they have either a year or two years to begin this process - they start to regularize them. And they have invited members of the international community to come in and to observe this process. But, you know, the thing with this ruling is that it's retroactive to 1929. I mean, clearly nations are sovereign and they can take decisions. And a number of countries around the world have decisions where, just because you were born there, doesn't automatically make you a citizen of that land. I think the outcry in this particular case is that it affects several generations in that country.

MARTIN: Why that particular deadline? Why the 1930s? Why is it going back, what, essentially three generations? What is their - what is the significance of the date by which citizenship had to have been established for persons to have unquestioned citizenship in the Dominican Republic?

CHARLES: That in itself is unclear, but it is interesting, right? It wasn't 1930 or 1925, but it's 1929. That I have not seen, why that particular date or what it was. But I know that going that far back is basically creating a lot of the concerns. And then you have the debate on the other side, right? Where some in Haiti say, well, these are not Haitians, these are Dominicans. So it's just something that we need to get involved with officially. But you also have present day. I mean, you know, this ruling was based on a court case of a young lady who was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parentage, like in 1984. And so it was based on her legal process that they made this judgment.

MARTIN: So people - these people are essentially now in limbo. I mean, we're reporting - we're hearing that people cannot renew passports, they can't register for college, they can't do any of the number of things that people would be able to do when their citizenship status is unclear. What are these people doing?

CHARLES: Exactly, they are in limbo. And they have been in limbo for a while. Again, this is not a new problem. I mean, we've seen that it's now been codified in the law by a tribunal. But the reality is is that for years you've had the children of Haitian immigrants who were in the Dominican Republic, who have been unable to get a passport, unable to get a driver's record, unable to attend school. You know, the Dominican Republic is big with baseball. There have been stories written about, you know, great baseball prospects, but they couldn't come to the U.S. or go elsewhere because they lacked documentation. They didn't have it from Haiti, and they didn't have it from the Dominican Republic. So basically right now people are waiting to see with this process, but at the same time waiting to see if the Dominican Republic - if their leadership, the president there - will take some other decision where not so many people would be potentially impacted by this decision.

MARTIN: What's been the response in the United States and in other sort of neighboring countries? I mean, there have been - I have seen a number of strongly worded editorials in major newspapers, particularly newspapers where there's a large Haitian diaspora in the U.S. But what has - has there been an official governmental response from the United States? And also, I think one would assume from the Haitian government?

CHARLES: Well, it's interesting. Let's talk about the Haitian government first. I mean, we do have the Haitian Foreign Minister, who has traveled to a number of Caribbean countries in the last couple of weeks, lobbying them in order to get them on board to, you know, address this issue. To try and get the Dominican Republic to back off or to do something differently. But last week, during a debate in the Haitian Senate, however, the issue was raised that neither the president nor the prime minister has publicly said anything about this. And they find that to be troubling.

MARTIN: And in the U.S.? We only have a minute left. In the U.S.?

CHARLES: And in the U.S., you have a number of groups, and the OAS has taken up this issue. The Caribbean community has taken up these issues. So what you have is a number of groups that have come together and talked about this, but what they're asking the U.S. to do is to press both countries to talk about this, to address this issue through diplomatic channels. So right now, there's a lot of talking. There's a lot of outrage. But there's yet to be any concrete action on the next chapter.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Charles is Caribbean correspondent for the Miami Herald. She was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Jacqueline, I hope you'll keep us posted on this. Thanks so much for joining us.

CHARLES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.