Published March 11, 2016
FOND BAYARD, Haiti—On April 28, 2009, Julia Antoine gave birth to a girl in a hospital in the town of Los Mina, in the Dominican Republic. Her husband, Fritz Charles, couldn’t be there—he was busy working his job at a chicken farm.
In the coming days, the couple named the girl Kimberly. When the family went home, Antoine was given a document from the hospital noting the birth, the date, and the word hembra, or female. They didn’t bother trying to get Kimberly an official birth certificate. Although Antoine and Charles had spent many years living and working in the Dominican Republic, they were Haitian citizens, and it was well known that Dominican officials routinely denied birth certificates to children born to Haitian parents if, like Antoine and Charles, the parents couldn’t furnish passports or other legal documents.
Still, Kimberly was, by law, entitled to Dominican citizenship. Yet in 2015, she was deported along with her mother.
“They found us on the street,” says Antoine, referring to the Dominican police. The two were on their way home from the house of a Dominican family where Antoine worked as a cleaner. People of Haitian heritage tend to have darker skin and can usually be distinguished by their accent. “They didn’t give us time to go home to find our things.” Nor did they allow Antoine to drop Kimberly off with her husband or even a family member or a friend, despite that the girl was legally Dominican. “Because my daughter was born there, she should have the right to live there,” Antoine told me one day in January.
Kimberly and her mother now live in a lean-to hut made of sticks in a refugee camp on borrowed land in Haiti. Their predicament offers a glimpse into what happens when a nation that bestowed citizenship on people born within its territory decides to take that citizenship away. Ted Cruz and Donald Drumpf, contenders for the Republican nomination for president, have proposed amending the Constitution to eliminate the 14th Amendment’s provision granting citizenship to anyone “born or naturalized in the United States,” but even they haven’t advocated for taking away people’s citizenship, as the Dominican Republic did with Kimberly.
Last year, the citizenship of an estimated 200,000 people of Haitian heritage became international news at the expiration of the Dominican Republic’s naturalization law, titled Law 169-14 and passed in 2014, that required the vast majority of them to register as foreigners in the country of their birth. (Only several thousand were able to retain their Dominican nationality.) When the registration deadline passed in June, thousands of Haitians who had been legal residents of the Dominican Republic—and their children who, like Kimberly, were Dominican citizens—fled across the border, many leaving possessions behind. Thousands more were rounded up by police and forcibly deported, many—including Kimberly, whose father remained behind to work—separated from family members.
The Dominican Republic won its independence from Haiti in 1844, after 22 years of occupation. Over the 20th century, tens of thousands of Haitians moved to the Dominican Republic to cut sugarcane, construct roads and buildings, and farm. Some were brought over by the Dominican government. Many were approved by border authorities to cross the border en route to a particular plantation that had recruited them. Others came illegally. Some would return to Haiti, but others never left, raising families and building lives in their new home.
Despite the immigrants’ enormous contributions to the economy, Dominicans have long harbored resentment against people of Haitian heritage, often stigmatizing them as prone to criminality or low morals. Some of that prejudice has racial undertones: While Dominicans come in many shades, most Haitians have dark skin. At times, Dominicans’ attempts to differentiate themselves as more “European” or “Spanish” have boiled over into violence: In 1937, the government orchestrated the slaughter of (historians estimate) between 9,000 and 30,000 Haitian immigrants and their Dominican children in what would become known as the Parsley Massacre.
More recently, the United Nations and other international agencies have documented how Haitians are routinely denied basic rights and protections under the law. During the past decade, the Dominican government has been slowly legalizing this latent, unofficial discrimination against people of Haitian heritage living in the Dominican Republic, marginalizing them in the process. A 2012 U.S. State Department report noted that since 2007, the Dominican government has taken “strong measures against providing citizenship to persons of Haitian descent born in the country” and that “these measures included refusals to renew Dominican birth and identity documents, resulting in de jure statelessness.”
To many Dominicans, Haitian immigrants and their descendants pose an ill-defined threat. “The Haitians are sort of provoking us,” one Dominican woman told me in January 2015. “There could be a war. And there are many of them.”
The regularization process that ended last summer in deportations was a reaction to the case of a woman named Juliana Deguis Pierre, who was born in the Dominican Republic to emigrant Haitian parents. The denial of her attempt to get a national identity card led, in 2013, to the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court declaring that Pierre, along with virtually all children born in the country to Haitian parents in the previous 85 years, were not citizens of the Dominican Republic. The court ruled children of Haitian parents fell under a vaguely defined exception to the constitutional provision granting Dominican citizenship to people born in the country. It decided that their parents, even though they may have been living in the Dominican Republic for years, were “in transit” at the time of the children’s birth. Now, without Dominican citizenship, the Dominican Republic–born children of immigrants were no longer entitled to stay.
Overnight, thousands of people became foreigners in their own country. People who had endured years of prejudice grasping at the fringes of Dominican society found themselves technically removed from it altogether.
To Vinicio Castillo Semán, who has led the legislative fight to deny nationality to children born to Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic, all of this should be Haiti’s problem, not his.
“We’ve been victim to a campaign of lies wanting to paint us as idiosyncratic,” he said one morning in January 2015 in his Santo Domingo law office. “We are a solidary people. There has never been a more solidary country in the world than the Dominican Republic is toward Haiti.” After the Port-au-Prince earthquake in 2010, he said, “we went to the streets to give all this food. But the Dominican Republic is a poor country with few resources, full of misery and problems of its own.”
In Semán’s view, the greatest threat to the Dominican Republic is Haitian immigration. “If we forbid deportations and we keep the border open, what will happen? All of Haiti will come here,” he said.
In August 2014 a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that the Dominican Republic’s retroactive revocation of the nationality of people born within its territory violated international law. Dominican nationalists such as Semán protested the decision, and two months later the Dominican legislature formally rejected it.
“The international pressure is to hold us accountable to a different standard than the rest of the world,” Semán insists. “No state can allow an international court—on the terms of immigration, which is basic—to tell it what constitutional steps it must take. It’s a form of a coup d’état.”
An hour from Semán’s office in the capital on a sunny day in January 2015, a public bus known as a guagua lets me off near a pack of motorcycle taxis parked at a crossroads in the northern campo—the countryside. I ask one of the drivers to take me “donde Juliana.” I am told she lives another 20 minutes from here, and the driver knows precisely where to find her.
When we pull up amid a collection of small, worn houses, he shuts off his engine, and I pay him. Off in the distance, a dark-skinned woman of medium build, straight hair, and smooth complexion pokes her head out the door of one of the concrete buildings and looks my way. This is Juliana Pierre, whose case led to the mass exodus and deportation of Haitians from the Dominican Republic last summer.
“How much did you pay?” Pierre asks me. One hundred and fifty pesos (about $4), I say. “You paid 150?” she asks. “But the price is 100!” The driver has already left. Pierre is irritated. I can’t tell if she’s angry at the driver for overcharging, at me for overpaying, or for some other reason altogether.
Pierre grew up here in Guanuma, one of the many rural Dominican slums, known as bateyes, that formed decades ago to house sugarcane workers from Haiti.
“My parents worked in the cane. They cut the cane with machetes,” says Pierre. “Other people go to collect it. They weigh it. And the amount it weighs, they pay you with a receipt. That receipt was the money.” The receipt was exchanged for food and other items at the local colmado.
As world sugar prices declined in the 1980s, most of the sugarcane plantations in the Dominican Republic died off. Workers left Guanuma, abandoning the long, single-story concrete buildings that the government had built for them. “They’d give just one room in this house. Up to four, five people would sleep here on the floor,” Pierre says. When she married, Pierre and her husband claimed two abandoned units. They now live in them with their three children, and she shows me inside.
Pierre and her husband, who comes in and out of the house as the day progresses, knocked down the wall that separated the units, furnishing one as a living room, with a table and a couch. The other became a kitchen and a bedroom. Clothes hang from the ceiling; campo houses don’t have closets.
Pierre decides to cook some breakfast. The propane canister next to her stove is empty, so she will use a small pot, charred black, to fry salami over a fire of sticks and charcoal outside. She slides pieces of salami into the pot, followed by chunks of pork still on the bone. Once those cook, she uses a spoon to flip a plantain into the pot. The oil splatters on her, and she flinches.
Pierre’s children linger about hungrily while she cooks. One of them approaches me. “You haven’t asked my name,” she says. Her brother blurts out: “Viviana.” “You’re Viviana?” I ask. She nods. Now one of the boys emerges from the house with a notebook and a pencil. They take turns attempting to write their names. Seeing them struggling, Pierre comes over to help, but she can’t quite spell her children’s names either. We decide on a work-around: One by one, Pierre says their names aloud and then has me guess, one letter at a time, how to spell them. If I write the wrong letter, she tells me so, and I cross it out and guess again.
Pierre tells me she attended elementary school near here but dropped out before the eighth grade to get married. She was 16. Two years later, in 2008, she hopped on a guagua and rode to the nearby town of Yamasa to obtain her first ID card—her cedula. In the Dominican Republic, a cedula is what allows you to work and vote. Obtaining one is a milestone, like getting your first driver’s license.
But the woman at the office wouldn’t give her one. Years later, a pair of human rights lawyers visiting Guanuma met Pierre and helped her file a lawsuit. That was the case that led to the infamous ruling, known here as la sentencia, that retroactively made hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian heritage, including Pierre, stateless.
Later, bachata music blares from a colmado as a group of older Haitians sit around talking about problems they’ve had with police in Santo Domingo. Another group down the road discusses work prospects. They are parents and grandparents, Haitians who migrated here decades ago to cut sugarcane. Without a cedula they can’t legally work.
But Pierre was born here, and she too has been turned away from jobs cleaning and doing laundry for families in the capital. Usually they’d ask to see her cedula. When she was unable to furnish one, sometimes the family would send her away.
In 2014, amid widespread international pressure over Pierre’s case, Dominican authorities backed down, providing Pierre with a cedula and restoring her Dominican citizenship. One of her lawyers, María Bizenny Martínez, says the decision was just for public relations. Most of her neighbors will never be Dominican again. Without a nationality, they struggle to find legal employment. Pierre says one of her friends is studying at a technical college in the city, but whenever she submits an exam, the professor asks for her ID. Each time she makes an excuse—that she forgot it, or she doesn’t carry it with her out of fear someone might steal it. She doesn’t tell him the truth: She has no cedula. Jobless and without papers, Pierre’s friend is at constant risk of being arrested and deported from her own country, just like Kimberly.
One night in January of last year, 12 defenders of the rights of Haitians in the Dominican Republic gather on a second-floor balcony of an apartment in an upper-middle-class Santo Domingo neighborhood belonging to Juan Bólivar Díaz, a prominent activist-journalist.
Díaz feels the rhetoric of nationalists like Semán blinds many Dominicans to just how alone they are in the world in their willingness to retroactively write prejudice into the law of the land. He points out that some of the staunchest critics of antihaitianismo are Dominicans who have left the island. “Anti-Haitianism is a racist ideology,” said the Dominican-born, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Junot Díaz in a recent interview with Americas Quarterly. (In retribution for such outspokenness, the Dominican government stripped Díaz of the Order of Merit it awarded him in 2009.)
Expat authors are not the only critics. Juan Bólivar Díaz’s guests, the founders of a movement they call “Those in Solidarity With Dominican-Haitians,” are among the foremost leaders of liberal Dominican civil society. Sipping whiskey and punch, they discuss the latest news: Dominican officials are turning away thousands who tried to register in accordance with the naturalization law that the Dominican Congress passed in 2014—likely in reaction to protests from the international community—to “regularize” people like Kimberly. The irregularities continue a familiar pattern of institutional discrimination. To Díaz, it is no less than ethnic cleansing.
The discussion turns from the problems faced by people teetering on the brink of statelessness to what to do about it. A deputy in the Dominican National Assembly, her dark hair tied back in a single long braid, argues that they must continue fighting in the realm of rights. They should stage demonstrations proclaiming that to make people stateless violates their humanity. “That’s where we can win this,” she says. (TakePart was given access to the meeting on the condition that some names of Díaz’s guests not be revealed.)
But a lawyer named Manuel Robles disagrees. The activists’ role should be to diligently document and report the irregularities in the process—not to sensationalize them, he says.
The legislator, whose soft, measured voice belies that she is the most powerful person in the room, counters that they need to address the political dynamics at play. Their opponents are well organized: Someone in the president’s cabinet is colluding with Semán, her colleague in the legislature. “Vinicio has someone that passes him information,” she says.
Nearly two hours into the meeting, the group agrees to hold a press conference, calling on Congress to defend its naturalization law against the irregularities and the apparent discrimination by Dominican officials tasked with implementing it. They will try to get five or 10 more legislators to stand with them—to ensure that their advocacy feels Dominican and counter the criticism that their cause is foreign. Around 10 p.m., Díaz politely ushers the group out, bidding each guest a good night. The press conference takes place three days later and is televised and written up in the papers.
But Díaz and his friends’ efforts were unsuccessful. In July, Human Rights Watch reported that Dominican authorities were still not following immigration protocols and had failed to abide by the legislature’s regularization process. Authorities were arbitrarily detaining and deporting people without due process and in some cases based solely on skin color. Last year Dominican officials admitted to deporting some 14,000 people since June 2015 and claimed that an additional 70,000 left voluntarily.
Kimberly and her mother now live in a refugee camp in Haiti known as Fond Bayard, without clean water or sanitation. Homes are made of tarps, weathered wood, and corrugated steel. Advocacy groups say the conditions in such camps constitute a humanitarian emergency. Haitian officials said last year that an estimated 2,000 people had settled in the camps; by now, the number is believed to be far higher.
The one permanent structure in Fond Bayard is a church that doubles as a school, built by a Haitian association for refugees in collaboration with a U.S. NGO, Food for the Poor. One day in December, children inside wearing yellow-and-gray uniforms repeat after the teacher in unison. Later, standing in front of the building, the teacher, a slender Haitian in his mid-40s, informs me that he doesn’t earn a salary. He teaches simply because children in the refugee camp need to be taught. He gestures at all the empty land surrounding the community and laments that the refugees of Fond Bayard aren’t allowed to farm it.
Everyone in Fond Bayard is a recent arrival from the Dominican Republic, and everyone has a story to tell. One 18-year-old, who asks that his name be withheld because he may still attempt to return, says he left Haiti in the chaos that followed the 2010 earthquake. He found a job in Santo Domingo at a car repair shop. One day last November, Dominican police picked him up and deported him, confiscating his wallet and cell phone. Inside his wallet was a picture of his Dominican girlfriend, who was pregnant. On his phone was her number. Authorities dropped him on the Haitian side of the border without either.
He joined the 178 households who had fled the Dominican Republic in June and July, according to Pastor Saintelus Cineas, the unofficial leader of Fond Bayard. A short man with a grandfatherly smile, today Cineas is planting maize in a small plot of dirt he has cleared of rocks. The 61-year-old lifts a five-gallon bucket of water and swings it back and forth, splashing water on the soil. The water comes from a nearby pump that Cineas says was a gift from a local Evangelical pastor. “You have to pump hard,” says Cineas. The entire community shares the one tap.
Cineas explains how Fond Bayard’s population dwindled recently as some headed deeper into Haiti looking for work, for relatives, for a home. Those who remain, like Antoine and Kimberly, are those with nowhere else to go. Haiti’s constitution guarantees citizenship to people like Kimberly, born to Haitian parents. But it isn’t clear how those born in the Dominican Republic who never received a birth certificate—or who had their papers illegally confiscated by Dominican authorities—are supposed to prove their lineage.
Antoine hasn’t found a job, so she volunteers to clean the school each week. Once a month a local church gives her and her daughter some rice. She stores it in Ziploc bags under the bed in the lean-to she built next to the church.
“In the Dominican Republic you can find work. You have freedom,” she says. The work isn’t always legal, but the country relies on tens of thousands of people like her for cheap labor. “But in Haiti you find nothing.”
Earlier this year, Antoine’s husband came over from the Dominican Republic to retrieve Kimberly’s hospital record. Antoine says Charles plans to return soon to the Dominican Republic, hoping to use it to get Kimberly a birth certificate. But she isn’t hopeful.
“I’m discouraged,” she says. “I’m here with my kid. It’s not good for anybody.”