Haitian descendants in Dominican Republic face human tragedy

In the midst of our domestic distraction with Obamacare and the destructive and just-ended federal government shutdown, we are in the midst of a global human-rights tragedy endangering hundreds of thousands of individuals but that has gone virtually unnoticed.

The highest court of the Dominican Republic recently decided to ignore hundreds of years of Western constructions of citizenship law, which provides that citizenship is granted to offspring of citizens or to those born in a country. Specifically, the court ruled to deny the Dominican nationality to children of undocumented immigrants, despite the fact that these children were born in the Dominican Republic.

The victims of this unwise decision meet both hallmarks of citizenship — they were born in the Dominican Republic and were born of Dominican parents (albeit of Haitian descent). To add insult to this legally absurd injury, the Dominican court decided to strip the citizenship of generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent dating back to 1929.

This unprecedented ruling could leave stateless and completely vulnerable anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 former Dominican citizens.

This villainous court decision will bring about a huge humanitarian tragedy. The people who will become stateless once the decision is implemented, for the most part, don’t know, nor have they been to, any country other than their native Dominican Republic. They speak only Spanish and have few, if any, family ties in neighboring Haiti.

These largely defenseless victims are condemned to one of four possible fates:

• First, the majority will be deported en masse to Haiti, where they will live as strangers, facing persecution from authorities of a land they are unfamiliar with and further complicating an already unbearable social and economic crisis.

• Second, a tiny portion of them will live in hiding in the Dominican Republic, bouncing from place to place, unable to lead a stable life.

• Third, some of them will be forced to live under the “benevolent” protection of sugar cane plantation owners who will then exploit their labor for a pittance. They will have to accede to sub-human living conditions to avoid being reported to the immigration authorities.

• Finally, there is the real possibility of many of them rightfully seeking political asylum in neighboring countries like the United States, and they will start building makeshift boats, attempting the deadly trek to reach the more clement shores of the Bahamas, Cuba and the United States.

Some may ask why, given our own domestic problems, we should care about the problems in another country; it may be tragic, but it is not our obligation to police the world. Such views miss some basic points.

In this global world, human-rights violations at our doorstep that could lead to the deaths of tens of thousands are in fact our problem and obligation to address. And if this humane and moral stance is not enough, rest assured that this issue will eventually reach our doorsteps, when tens of thousands of victims seek political asylum in our country as well as others throughout the hemisphere. The entire region will have to address the consequences of the Dominican court’s decision.

Finally, the decision by the Dominican court is a microcosm of the immigration debate occurring in our own land. If, in fact, the American public would have supported a self-deportation model that now the Dominicans have imposed, we, too, would be facing massive threats to millions of our residents. Thankfully, we have found such potential injustices unacceptable. We can’t afford to sit quietly by while just off our shores others are engaging in rank persecution.

The international community, the United States and the Haitian government should exercise their combined political and economic power to ensure that this injustice is rolled back.

Ediberto Roman teaches law at Florida International University and is the author of numerous books and articles. Frandley Julien studies law at FIU.