Suddenly, Illegal at Home

On the afternoon of Oct. 4, Maria Pierre stood up in front of a huge crowd of demonstrators at the Dominican Constitutional Court in Santo Domingo and confessed that she was in her native land illegally. “My only crime is that I was born here,” she began, and then her tears started flowing. The supportive crowd cheered her on with a loud chant: “We are Dominican, too! We belong here! We are not going anywhere!”

Ms. Pierre, 19, who was born to Haitian parents who were in the Dominican Republic illegally, is one of more than 200,000 people affected by a historic ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court denying citizenship rights to those born to undocumented people. The ruling is ostensibly aimed at controlling undocumented immigration from Haiti, which has increased by about 20 percent since the 2010 earthquake. But because it is retroactive to 1929, this “immigration reform” means that people like Ms. Pierre, who know no other country than the Dominican Republic, will be placed in civic limbo, unable to attend school, to work or even to cash a check.

In effect, it also means that three generations of one family could be deported. Since the Sept. 23 ruling, deportations have begun: The Associated Press reported that over 300 people have been deported thus far, despite the Dominican government’s assurance that there would be no large-scale removals. The deportations intensified following the killing of an elderly Dominican couple, allegedly by a Haitian man. At the end of November, the Dominican government announced it would set up a “special naturalization process” for the children of undocumented people, but left unclear what the conditions for eligibility might be.

There are some indications that the ruling could have been payback for Haiti’s decision to favor commercial exports from Brazil over those from the Dominican Republic. Others believe that it’s simply a way for the government to distract the public from pressing domestic problems like taxes, unemployment and austerity measures.

The law is opposed by many in the Dominican Republic as well as many Dominican-Americans in the United States, including the writer Junot Díaz, who denounced the ruling as barbaric and a way of distracting people from the real problems of having “corrupt politicians” leading the country. Many Dominicans in the diaspora are leading efforts to fight the ruling and offer aid to those affected. Their actions include several efforts to obtain humanitarian visas for young people and students.

Those who voice opposition have been described as traitors by Dominican state officials. The elite intellectuals who sympathize have been told that they are not welcome on the island because of their unpatriotic sentiments.

When it comes to immigration and Haiti, the Dominican Republic takes its cues from the United States. The United States has always perceived the Dominican Republic as the “better” of the two countries sharing the island of Hispaniola. As early as 1871 an American commission gave a green light to Dominican self-governance while refusing to grant the same to Haiti, which had been a country since 1804. Though the United States viewed both countries as racially inferior and in need of “Big Brother”-type guidance, the Dominican Republic was perceived as less threatening and more progressive, in part because it had defined itself politically and culturally against Haiti. The Dominican Republic obtained its independence from Haiti in 1844 after a 22-year unification. Consequently, its national identity emerged in opposition to Haiti’s.

During the first United States military occupation of Hispaniola in the early 20th century, this better-worse rhetoric resulted in the introduction of legislation that promoted national hierarchies and ethnic inequities that benefited corporations. By the end of the American intervention in 1924, for instance, a program to import temporary laborers was started in the Dominican Republic to bring cheap Haitian labor to cut cane in the large sugar plantations owned by American companies. At the same time, the first Dominican border patrol was created, an immigration protocol was established, and the practice of document checking at the Dominican side of the border was instituted.

Dominican leaders continue to look to the United States for guidance on questions of immigration and border control. In the United States, the decision to help some of the “dreamers” and the promise of comprehensive immigration reform fueled the hope of many during the 2012 elections, but this year, deportations have continued to increase.

Maria Pierre, according to Dominican Law 168/13, was born a criminal. In the United States, someone with a similar history would be a criminal at age 18; children are not deported just because their parents are not legal immigrants.

A young woman whose name I cannot use, to protect her identity, crossed the border from Mexico into the United States in her mother’s arms at the age of 1. Like Ms. Pierre, who knows no country other than the Dominican Republic, she has no country other than the United States. Like Ms. Pierre, she could be deported to an unfamiliar nation.

The Dominican Constitutional Court ruling is an extreme version of the American response to the “immigration problem” and a scary window into a possible future. Recent immigration laws like Arizona’s “show me your papers” and Georgia’s ban of undocumented students from public universities crystallize nationalist sentiment and immigrant resentment. The Dominican Court actions, much like Arizona’s law, send the following message: We want our houses cleaned, our food prepared, our fruits picked; but we don’t want you here and we do not want you to be our equals. Down that path lies Jim Crow and apartheid.

So where do we go from here? A simple thought gives me hope. Those in the Dominican Republic who have been deprived of their nationality are also taking their cue from the United States. They are following in the steps of the brave undocumented people in the United States who, against all odds, continue to come out of the shadows, reminding all of us that they are still here, and that they are not going anywhere because this is their home.

Lorgia García-Peña is an assistant professor of Romance languages and literatures and of history and literature at Harvard.

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