Jim Crow’s Dominican Cousin (II)

Dominicans of Haitian descent wait in line to legalize their status at the Dominican Interior Ministry, June 16, 2015. Photo credit: Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images. Source: The Root.

Back in October of last year, I blogged about how the Dominican Constitutional Court snuffed out the legal citizenship status of the children of undocumented Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, mentioning that this was not just a consequence of the racialized nation-building process all Latin American countries went through, but also proof positive that the anti-Haitianism of the late dictator Rafael Trujillo was still alive and well. As of today, the Dominican government is doubling down. Under a government order, all Haitians residing in the DR have been instructed to register with the government or face deportation. About 290,000 of the 450,000 Haitian migrants living in the DR have registered, but only less than 2% of all applicants have acquired legal status. Mass deportation has not occurred (yet), but many Haitians have already been detained on the streets and forcibly deported, while another 30,000 or so have left for Haiti voluntarily because of the threat of deportation.

As it usually happens, the roots of the story go far back. The DR is one of the very few examples in which independence was gained more than once (the other being Uruguay, first from Spain and later from Brazil); although the country declared itself free from Spain in November 1821, independence ended nine weeks later when Haiti invaded and annexed the country. Then, in 1844 (the officially recognized year of Dominican independence), Juan Pablo Duarte and the Trinitarians unleashed a revolt and declared the DR liberated from Haitian control, although it would take another two decades for that independence to be firmly established in part because Haiti tried several times to retake the country. Those historical circumstances – as well as the fact that the 1822 occupation started with a trail of killed Dominicans – were a perfect fit for Trujillo’s construction of Dominican nationhood around Spanish culture. (David Baronov and Kevin Yelvington argue that this was more ethnic than racial, as Afro-Dominican-ness was more or less recognized despite the popular belief that all people of African descent were necessarily Haitian.) More unfortunate still, anti-Haitianism made its way into popular consciousness, survived Trujillo’s assassination, and was taken up by protégé Joaquin Balaguer, who during one of his five presidential reelection campaigns – in 1994 – constantly referred to his main rival, Santo Domingo mayor José Francisco Peña Gómez, as a Haitian. Very ironically, Trujillo’s maternal grandmother was Haitian.

There are interesting angles to this still developing situation. First we can only wonder if Haiti can handle what some see as a humanitarian disaster in the making. To be sure, the Dominican government restored full citizenship to 55,000 Dominico-Haitians last month, but that does not reduce the possibility of a wave of deportees crashing into Haiti (tentatively) late this month – not with the number of accepted applications this low. And if and when that happens, the Haitian government may not have enough resources to mitigate anything. Indeed, the fact that the internal stability of Haiti continues to depend on a UN peacekeeping force and that the World Food Program is concerned about the 3 million Haitians whose food security is non-existent shows that Haiti still cannot take care of itself on its own, much less of hundreds of thousands of deportees from the DR. It may happen that Haiti will have to outsource the effort of mitigating the problem (or parts of it) to international bodies.

Another angle is how the Dominican government has responded to all disapproval of its decision to revoke the citizenship of Dominico-Haitians and issue the threat of deportation. A highly notorious example occurred in 2005, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) decided unanimously that the Dominican government violated the rights of two Dominico-Haitian girls by imposing onto their parents conditions on acquiring the proper birth certificates that were considered too difficult to meet, ordered the prompt issuing of those certificates, and granted $8,000 in damages to the families (read the full text of the opinion here). Demonstrating to the whole continent that there was no problem with the DR being a sore loser, the Dominican Constitutional Court opined afterwards that the country’s constitution did not grant automatic citizenship to the children of people “in transit” through Dominican territory; because their parents were seasonal workers, the petitioners were hence excluded from jus soli (birthright citizenship). Subsequent restrictions on citizenship, such as the one declared last year against Dominico-Hatians, were defended by the Dominican government as exercises of its sovereign right to decide who is a citizen and who is not, utilizing a rhetoric that is usually found in governments that do not tolerate any criticism whatsoever of its actions, even if they are deservedly reprehensible. In other words, the DR invokes national sovereignty to plug their ears and not listen to what it needs to hear, such as another unfavorable verdict from the IACHR. It seems, then, that the DR is no different from China, Venezuela or Israel in that regard.

The most interesting angle for purposes of the US, one that mainstream pundits appear not to have mentioned yet, are the connections with the ongoing immigration debate, More precisely, it seems that neither Donald “One-Man Border Patrol” Trump nor those who agree with his statement that Mexico only sends criminals and rapists seem to know about the Dominican case despite being covered in mainstream outlets like the New York Times. There is no reason why Trump and others who have insulted Mexican migrants in the past (and presently) cannot find kindred spirits in the DR; after all, their words sound like Trujillo’s. Neither there is a difference between Balaguer supporters accusing Peña Gómez of spearheading the Haitian re-annexation of the DR and hardline American nationalists accusing Mexican migrants of being part of the recapture of the land won by the US from Mexico in the 1840s and subsequent creation of the Chicano nation-state. There is also very little that separates the typical Mexican migrant working on a California lettuce field and the typical Haitian working on a Dominican sugar field – they share the same reasons to live their home countries, and the same abuses. And besides, having the Supreme Court deciding against birthright citizenship to DREAMers through legal casuistry, similar to what the Dominican Constitutional Court did against Dominico-Haitians, is less laughable and outlandish than proposing to build a wall sealing the southern border tight, as Trump says he will do as President. After all, it would not be the first time that the Court has decided against minorities (see Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson or Korematsu v. US). In all, both the US and the DR are examples of a global migration crisis that cannot be solved through xenophobic gestures.

And on that note, I will repeat the quote from Duarte that opened the initial post:

I admire the Haitian people from the moment when, gathering the pages of its history, I see it struggling desperately against exceedingly superior powers and how it defeats them and overcomes the sad condition of slavery to constitute itself as a free and independent nation. I recognize its possession of two eminent truths: love for liberty and valor.

His country continues to give him the finger.

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