The Plight of Stateless Haitians

A stroke of a pen amending the constitution of the Dominican Republic in 2013 rendered an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 Haitians in the country a stateless people. Haitians in the Dominican Republic born as early as 1929 to undocumented parents became persons without a country.

In reality, there was a sliver of an opportunity for regularization status for those who could successfully navigate the labyrinthine system and who could produce proper documentation. This is complicated, as many persons of Haitian ancestry born in the Dominican Republic were never issued birth certificates. The regularization process was cumbersome even for those who had one parent that was Dominican. The deadline for applying for the naturalization program ended six months ago when only a handful of individuals who registered had actually received residence permits. Many applicants continue to live in limbo having no access to documents that they submitted along with their application fees.

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Over the last several months, many Haitians have been forced to leave for Haiti, a country many do not know. Wide estimates suggest that tens of thousands of Haitians have either been deported or have voluntarily left for Haiti. Those voluntarily leaving the Dominican Republic have done so in response to threats from native Dominicans, a large majority of whom favor the constitutional amendment ridding the country of Haitians. Approximately 3,000 Haitians are living in makeshift squalid camps located along Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, where they reside in the midst of an outbreak of cholera, little food, and the lack of potable water, sanitary sewage and medical care.

The history of Dominican-Haitian relations has been tainted by massive hate and racism, intensified by the Dominican Republic gaining its independence not from Spain, like many other countries in Latin America, but from Haiti in 1844. One of the ugliest stains in Dominican-Haitian relations is the massacre of Haitians—estimates ranging from 9,000 to 20,000—in the Dominican Republic in 1937 at the behest of Rafael Trujillo, the country’s tyrant who brutally reigned over the Dominican Republic for over three decades. (See also here)

Racism against Haitians in the country persists today. (see here and here) Racial lines are clearly drawn. Many Dominicans recognize their Spanish and indigenous roots but not their African ancestry that many possess. Dominicans tend to not see themselves as black, even if their skin color belies this perception; it is Haitians who are black. Dominicans have a wide variety of terms in their racial lexicon to identify themselves as anything but black. (See also here)

Haitians are segregated with a large number living in bateyes, sugar cane plantations, where they live in horrendous slavelike conditions. The life of Haitians in the bateyes in the Dominican Republic is depicted in the 2007 documentary “The Price of Sugar” featuring the Spanish priest Christopher Hartley and narrated by Paul Newman. I personally visited several bateyes in the Dominican Republic in 2009 and witnessed the dreadful conditions under which Haitians lived and toiled. In one batey families were crowded into very small shacks and there was no private facilities where people could bathe. In another batey children played and ran barefoot in grounds scattered with human and animal feces.

Over the last year, the issue of immigration has been in the news. Press reports have been dominated by the more than 1 million refugees and migrants that have arrived in Europe in 2015. In Texas there has been much attention to the resurgence of Central American children making their way to South Texas, as well as Governor Greg Abbott’s protest against the settling of Syrian refugees in the state.

The Haitian migrant crisis in the Dominican Republic has received far less attention. Despite pressure from political activists within the country as well as from abroad, the Dominican Republic government denies the statelessness status and the violation of basic human rights of Haitian migrants. (See also here)

The statelessness of Haitians is the latest setback for the poorest people in Latin America. A brighter light needs to be cast on the plight of Haitians without a country.

Note: A slightly revised version of this article was originally published in the Austin American-Statesman (December 31, 2015).

~ Rogelio Sáenz is Dean of the College of Public Policy and Peter Flawn Professor of Demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is co-author of Latinos in the United States: Diversity and Change and co-editor of The International Handbook of the Demography of Race and Ethnicity.

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