In a stark example of a protect-the-borders policy gone wrong, the Dominican Republic’s highest court has created a humanitarian crisis and thrown nearly a quarter of a million residents into a stateless limbo. Although the controversy shines a spotlight on the challenges posed by global migration, the Dominican government needs to recalibrate its Draconian approach.
In 2013, a retroactive ruling by the Dominican Republic’s constitutional tribunal called for any person in the country born to undocumented foreign parents to be deported and denied birthright citizenship, unless they could produce official residency papers. This meant that about a quarter of a million Dominican residents, most of them of Haitian descent and working for very low wages, were rendered stateless. Although many of these residents were born in the Dominican Republic, they had no way to quickly obtain proper documentation. That means they could not work, open a bank account, marry, vote, or get a driver’s license. All that was left to do was “self-deport” to a country many of them knew little of, or had never set foot in.
Facing international backlash, the Dominican government partially reversed its course and announced a regularization effort to restore citizenship to some children of immigrants while offering a naturalization plan to other undocumented residents. People with no status had until mid-June to produce documentation to be granted official residency permits. But the process has been complex and cumbersome, and is far from comprehensive: Estimates put the number of people who actually meet all the requirements at only 10,000.
Here in the Commonwealth, politicians deserve praise for speaking up and calling attention to this wrong-headed policy. Massachusetts has the third largest Haitian-American population in the country. State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, the state’s highest-ranking Haitian-American elected official, called the Dominican government’s actions a “discriminatory practice against their own citizens — they just happen to have Haitian blood.” Dorcena Forry called on Haitian-Americans and their allies “to reconsider any existing plans to vacation in the Dominican Republic until its government reverses course.” US Representative Michael Capuano stopped short of calling for a travel boycott, saying “we’re not there yet.” While a travel boycott at this time seems short-sighted, Capuano rightly notes that there are other levers the US government can use to pressure the Dominican Republic. Congress should consider calling for some measure of immigration reform when it weighs the next aid package to the island.
The Haitian economy, which is still fragile despite receiving billions of dollars of relief over the last five years, does not have the capacity to absorb tens of thousands of refugees from its next-door neighbor. Already, 14,000 Haitian migrants have returned, according to the prime minister. Without a solution, a looming crisis threatens to erode any progress made in shoring up infrastructure and institutions after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
To justify and defend the more stringent immigration laws, Dominican officials point to national sovereignty. “I want to make it clear also that no other nation in the world, nor any international organization, can demand that the Dominican Republic make sacrifices to its migratory system, or any other sovereign right, beyond what is ordered by the laws and the constitution,” Dominican President Danilo Medina said in February. Other supporters of Medina wrongly rationalize the policy using a false moral equivalency: “People living in developed countries, or under their auspices, are not equipped at all to help us in this dire hour, burdened as they are with crimes of their own,” writes a blogger, referring to the United States.
But it is in the Dominican Republic’s own best interests for Haiti to become a stronger and sustainable state. The Dominican Republic should normalize its immigration policies by grandfathering in the vast majority of residents of Haitian descent who have known no other country and whose mass deportation would be a travesty. Allowing them to stay is the only sensible and humane thing to do.