The Dominican Republic’s Shameful Deportation Legacy
The Dominican Republic is desperately trying to win back the world's respect after its expulsion of Haitians. History, however, stands in its way.
Today's refugee crisis in Europe recalls another refugee crisis that occurred nearly eight decades ago. In 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called officials from 32 nations to assemble in Évian-les-Bains, France, to devise a plan to help Europe’s Jewish refugees. Not a single major country stepped up in a significant way, and most did nothing at all. The only leader to heed the call: Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, who offered 100,000 visas and 26,000 acres.
Today’s refugee crisis in Europe recalls another refugee crisis that occurred nearly eight decades ago. In 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called officials from 32 nations to assemble in Évian-les-Bains, France, to devise a plan to help Europe’s Jewish refugees. Not a single major country stepped up in a significant way, and most did nothing at all. The only leader to heed the call: Gen. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, who offered 100,000 visas and 26,000 acres.
But Trujillo’s seemingly benevolent invitation was, in fact, nothing more than a cynical attempt to restore his image. In early October 1937, just months before the Evian meeting, Trujillo authorized an ethnic-cleansing campaign along the Dominican-Haitian border with the aim of expunging dark-skinned Haitians. The episode is known as the Parsley Massacre due to the widely told (though possibly apocryphal) story that, to test whether those in the borderlands were Dominican or Haitian, soldiers asked them to say perejil, Spanish for parsley — a word Haitians were known to have difficulty pronouncing. The ensuing massacre went on for about two weeks, leaving approximately 25,000 dead.
The plan Trujillo presented at Évian months later, then, was a bid to restore himself to the world’s good graces. It was no coincidence that his offer to European Jews would “whiten” the country — the same racist aim of the Parsley Massacre — by bringing in eligible bachelors whose skin, at least by Dominican standards, was white. The criteria for eligibility, which included a preference for single young men and farmers, limited the number of applicants, with the result that only several hundred people arrived two years later. Only a few stayed permanently.
Flash-forward to the present. Much like Trujillo’s initiative at Évian, the Dominican Republic is once again using the cloak of a modest amount of good to hide a poisonous reality fraught with problems.
Since June, tens of thousands of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent have left the Dominican Republic for Haiti in both forced and “voluntary” departures. The expulsions followed the expiration of a key deadline in what the Dominican government bills as a plan to give legal status to recent migrants and to restore the nationality of Dominicans of Haitian descent who had been denied their citizenship through a complicated legal and political drama.
Under what it calls its “regularization” program, the Dominican government claims that more than 350,000 people will be able to formalize their citizenship or residency status. José Tomás Pérez, the Dominican ambassador to the United States, has pointed out that the plan is roughly equivalent, in proportion to the Dominican Republic’s population, to legalizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Crucially, however, the United States has not forced citizens born to generations of immigrant parents to re-register in the uncertain hope of retaining their citizenship. But that is precisely what the Dominican Republic has done following a controversial 2013 ruling by the country’s highest court that rescinded birthright citizenship granted by the constitution that was in effect from 1929 to 2010. The court thus retroactively stripped scores of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their nationality.
A “naturalization” process supposedly would have restored their citizenship. Yet the scheme is riddled with problems rooted in a decades-long struggle over the legal status of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic.
The country’s 1929 constitution stated that anyone born on Dominican soil, with the exception of diplomats and those “in transit,” was a citizen. (You may form your own judgment on whether migrant workers brought to the Dominican Republic, many via a program under which the Dominican government paid Haiti for the right to import workers, fit the definition of “in transit.”) For years, officials in Santo Domingo took that clause as justification to deny birth certificates, education, passports, and government identification cards to Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Frequent deportations have taken place over the years, tracking cycles of economic and political difficulties. Haitian cane workers began arriving in the Dominican Republic en masse in the early 20th century, when the United States occupied both countries. Its goal was to restore order and force the countries to repay their debts to European governments (thus removing the temptation for Europe to send troops to the Caribbean to collect). Yet during economic downturns, from the Great Depression to the many later busts on the heels of brief (often debt-fueled) booms, the Dominican government expelled many Haitians and, all too often, dark-skinned Dominicans — easy scapegoats.
During the 1990s, the rising political star of José Francisco Peña Gómez, a Dominican of Haitian descent, spurred his opponents to stir up fears of Haiti in an effort to discredit him. More recently, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti led to a brief thaw in relations between the nations, but the economic stress that followed, along with the surge of Haitians seeking work in the Dominican Republic, renewed tensions.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that the long-smoldering citizenship issue heated up shortly after the devastating Haiti earthquake. In 2010, the Dominican Republic revised its constitution to confer citizenship only to those children born on Dominican soil to “residents” — that is, people with formal legal status. Three years later, the Dominican Constitutional Court issued ruling 168-13, which retroactively denationalized Dominicans of Haitian descent, extending all the way back to 1929. A subsequent law, passed in 2014, provided a means to “reinstate” citizenship, but only to those who could prove that their parents were in the Dominican Republic legally. Given the myriad problems with documentation on both sides of the border, that’s a tall order. As a result, many people will not be able to formally reclaim their citizenship.
This past June, when a key deadline for registering to formalize legal status expired, the Dominican Republic hired buses and began preparing to transport Haitians across the border. Weeks later, it hired public relations consultants to recast its actions in a rosy light. Their work will not be easy.
In September, Ambassador Pérez claimed that no one born on Dominican soil or any unaccompanied minors would be expelled or deported and that the country has not carried out any indiscriminate deportations. Human rights groups and journalists, however, have documented precisely the opposite. Pérez’s claim also contradicts a July report by the International Organization for Migration in which more than a third of the 1,133 individuals the group interviewed said they had been forcibly returned to Haiti.
Similarly, a July Human Rights Watch report condemned the registration process, calling its implementation and design flawed. It also noted that the Dominican Republic’s arbitrary expulsions negated its supposed goals of recognizing the nationality of Dominicans of Haitian descent and bringing the country’s human rights laws in line with international standards. “The process has not only violated human rights law, it has been impossible for many to access on its own terms,” the report said. “[M]ilitary and immigration authorities have harassed, detained, and expelled individuals seeking to enter the civil registries through the registration process as well.”
This is not new. I witnessed, firsthand, the results of one mass deportation in 1991 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the Dominican Republic expelled some 14,000 Haitians and Dominican-Haitians in retaliation against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s harsh criticism of Dominican treatment of Haitian migrant workers. Another 40,000 or so also fled to Haiti. When I was writing Why the Cocks Fight, my book about Dominican-Haitian relations, I heard numerous accounts from cane-field workers and human rights groups of Dominican soldiers demanding citizenship papers from Haitian migrants and dark-skinned Dominicans and then proceeding to rip the documents to shreds.
Today’s retroactive removal of citizenship — including by declaring birth certificates invalid — is merely a more sophisticated version of ripping up papers.
The lost opportunity here is especially sad. If the rosy picture that the Dominican Republic has presented of its commitment to human rights were true, this would be an important precedent. Instead, the current situation threatens to destroy any remaining shred of the cooperation that flourished between the countries following the earthquake in 2010.
This imperils the economies of both nations, particularly as a Haitian ban on some Dominican imports — worth an estimated $500 million a year — comes into effect. Although the Dominican Republic is considerably better off than Haiti, it too has economic troubles — a point that officials like to emphasize when justifying their policies toward Haitian migrants.
There are some signs, however small, of progress. The Dominican government has said that it welcomes the presence of the international community, a refreshing change from the past. Although the country has begun formal deportations, it also has extended the deadline to apply for legalization or reinstatement of citizenship. By mid-September, government officials reported that they had received 289,000 applications, 78,000 of which they had denied. In addition, the Central Electoral Board has admitted that it erroneously froze the documentation of approximately 55,000 people, and it reinstated their legal status.
But these moves, while promising, aren’t nearly enough. Without taking responsibility for some of its more egregious violations, the Dominican Republic will not win the international respect it craves.
The court ruling and the recent expulsions have dealt a serious blow to the country’s reputation. In November 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a scathing ruling condemning the Dominican government for violating 11 articles of the American Convention on Human Rights, including the right to nationality. In retaliation, the Dominican government withdrew from the convention, with the result that Dominicans themselves will no longer be protected by a public government commitment to international human rights protocols.
Even many Dominicans who support the government’s position have reservations about the retroactive nature of the 2013 ruling. Why waste so much effort on a policy that has generated such ill will? Guaranteeing citizenship to those who already had it from 1929 to 2010 — thus ending the charade of reapplying for legal status — would be the most effective step the Dominican Republic could take to repair its relationship with Haiti and international critics. Normalizing relations with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights would help the Dominican Republic’s case as well.
Governments and international organizations must also be more forceful. One way to hold the Dominican Republic accountable would be for the United States to cut off military aid until the country shows respect for international human rights norms. That aid can be used more effectively to support civilian agencies and organizations.
Given the Dominican Republic’s history of destroying or refusing to provide documentation, and Haiti’s difficulty in providing it, this process should include mechanisms for those who may lack prior formal documentation. The Dominican Republic has justifiably criticized the Haitian government for failing to properly document its citizens. Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrants have also complained that they have not received the support they need from Haitian authorities to regularize their status within the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic and Haiti, both poor countries, could use international technical assistance and financial support to create a robust, fair, and simplified regularization process.
It may be impossible to erase the cynicism and cruelty of the past. Yet by seizing opportunities to collaborate, it is possible for Dominicans and Haitians, with the support of the international community, to shape a better shared future.
Photo credit: Erika Santelices/AFP
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