Letter from The Dominican Republic — From the May 2015 issue

Displaced in the D.R.

A country strips 210,000 of citizenship

Even before Juliana Deguis Pierre became famous, or infamous, any Dominican who saw her would have guessed that she was of Haitian descent. Her dark skin, wide nose, and what is, in the Dominican Republic, called pelo malo — “bad hair” — immediately identify her as the child of Haitians, even though she was born in the Dominican Republic and has never been to Haiti.

Until September 2013, Deguis’s life followed a pattern common among children of immigrants. Like Latin Americans in the United States, Haitian immigrants in the D.R. do the menial jobs that most Dominican citizens try to avoid: construction, harvesting fruits and vegetables, cutting sugarcane, cleaning homes, and nannying children. About 7 percent of the people who live in the D.R. are immigrants, roughly the same proportion of first-generation Latin American immigrants living in the United States. Many Haitians crossed the border at the invitation of Dominican businesses or were smuggled in by Dominican traffickers. Deguis’s parents immigrated four decades ago, when a Dominican sugar company contracted them to work as cane cutters. The company never secured them working papers, but when Deguis was born her parents inscribed her in the civil registry and got her a Dominican birth certificate. They raised her in a company town called Los Jovillos, where she still lives today. Deguis has held several jobs, most recently caring for children and working as a maid in Santo Domingo, the capital, which lies two hours south of Los Jovillos, for 1,500 pesos (about $35) per week. In 2008, the family that employed her suggested that she register for the cédula, or I.D. card, that is necessary to work legally in the Dominican Republic. Deguis was twenty-four years old and pregnant with a son, and she would need the I.D. card to get him a birth certificate.

CESFRONT border-control guards watch for Haitians trying to cross illegally into the Dominican Republic. Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean.

CESFRONT border-control guards watch for Haitians trying to cross illegally into the Dominican Republic. Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean.

At the Junta Central Electoral, the Dominican equivalent of a passport office and D.M.V., officials told Deguis that her birth certificate was invalid and that she was not eligible for an I.D. card. “How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?” she asked. Until 2010, the Dominican constitution guaranteed jus soli, a right that grants citizenship to anyone born in the territory of a state, with the exception of those whose parents were “in transit,” a provision understood to cover diplomats and tourists in the country for fewer than ten days. But in the 1990s, the Junta Central Electoral began to refuse papers to Dominicans who, like Deguis, have Haitian names or faces. Without further explanation, the officials confiscated Deguis’s birth certificate.

Shocked, Deguis and several other plaintiffs sued the government, and her appeal proceeded all the way to the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court. There the case backfired badly. On September 23, 2013, the tribunal handed down ruling TC/0168/13, “the Sentence,” as it became known around the world. The tribunal revoked Deguis’s citizenship, declaring that her undocumented parents were “in transit” when she was born. More disastrous still, the Sentence applied to all Dominicans with undocumented foreign parents, most of whom, like Deguis, have no family in Haiti, speak little or no Creole, and are not eligible for Haitian citizenship. The decision was retroactive, affecting anyone born in 1929 or later. Two hundred ten thousand people were suddenly stateless.

“I’m a nobody in my own country,” Deguis said at the time. When I met her in Santo Domingo, last summer, she shook my hand with a feathery touch and spoke so softly that I had to lean in to hear. She told me that the Sentence had paralyzed her life, and the lives of the other denationalized people, who became known as los afectados. They could not legally work, marry, open a bank account, get a driver’s license, vote, or register for high school or university. “If you don’t have a document, an I.D. card, you can’t work anywhere,” Deguis said. Nor could she travel: in March 2014, the United States issued Deguis a special visa to visit Washington, D.C., to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Deguis showed me a photocopy of her visa, stamped by the Department of State. “My luggage was packed,” she said. She was stopped at the airport by Dominican authorities who claimed that she did not have the paperwork to legally depart the D.R. There was no guarantee, they said, that she would be allowed back into the country. Deguis returned home.

Guerline Laurent, twenty-five, and her husband have lived in Ranchadero, a Dominican town near the border with Haiti, for six years. Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean.

Guerline Laurent, twenty-five, and her husband have lived in Ranchadero, a Dominican town near the border
with Haiti, for six years. Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean.

As a result of her case — and the Sentence — Deguis is now notorious on the island. Dominican television covered her trip to the airport as breaking news. People stop her on the street to greet her and express support, or to tell her to “go back to your country” — by which they mean Haiti. Deguis’s parents worry that nationalists will try to harm her, and friends warn her to be careful, saying, “Everywhere you go, people are looking at you, on all of the channels they are talking about you.” United Nations officials call her the “rock star of statelessness.”

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is a doctoral candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University.

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