Families Divided in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic's nationality rules are a tangle of check-boxes and criteria, but for one family the impact of new legislation could not be more stark. By a fluke of bureaucracy, two out of three children might be awarded citizenship and all its benefits, but the third could remain lost in the limbo of statelessness...

The Dominican Republic's nationality rules are a tangle of check-boxes and criteria, but for one family the impact of new legislation could not be more stark. By a fluke of bureaucracy, two out of three children might be awarded citizenship and all its benefits, but the third could remain lost in the limbo of statelessness.

I met the Nuel family in March 2014. As three young children gurgled and crawled around her feet, their mother Liliana Nuel told me about her dreams for herself and her family. She dreams of studying Law at university, and has similarly high hopes for her three babies.

But it would take some serious legal expertise to untangle the complex issues around the official citizenship of this small family. The Nuels are of Haitian origin, which means their rights in the Dominican Republic are precarious. New regulations brought in by the authorities have further complicated their position in the country and the past months have been a roller-coaster with many twists and turns.

The first of the complications came in September 2013 when the Constitutional Court, the country's highest court, announced in judgment 168-13 that Dominican children of irregular migrants born in the Dominican Republic between 1929 and 2007 had never been entitled to Dominican nationality and would be stripped of it retroactively.

The changes overwhelmingly affected people of Haitian descent. Overnight, they were made stateless - a term which may seem ephemeral and bureaucratic. In reality it means being denied fundamental human rights such as education, access to the labour market, health insurance, the freedom to travel, and the ability to register births of their children.

Amnesty International expressed serious concerns about the ruling at the time, and the government hit back insisting there was nothing wrong. According to them, the current situation was the result of years of uncontrollable migration from Haiti. They also insisted that this is nothing new, that the rules for acquiring citizenship have always been the same.

What the government failed to mention is that many of the Haitian migrants living and bringing up their children in the Dominican Republic had been actively encouraged to come to the country since the 1940s, through bi-lateral agreements between the two countries aiming to relocate a cheap labour force to work in the sugarcane plantations. Likewise, the government refuses to admit that the rules for acquiring Dominican citizenship only changed with the new constitution in 2010.

When I spoke to Liliana back in March she was facing a real crisis. The twenty-year-old was born in the Dominican province of Monte Plata, to Haitian parents. Her parents followed all the right procedures for declaring her birth and she was given a Dominican birth certificate.

Things were fine for 18 years, but then in 2012 she started an application to obtain a cédula (ID card). Her request was refused. The civil registry office explained she could not get the ID because "her parents were Haitians."

Without a cédula she hasn't been able to register the birth of her three children, born in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Nor will she be able to enrol in university. The Constitutional Court's ruling last September inflicted a further blow to Liliana's ambitions.

But recently there was something of a step forward. Or at least that's how it seemed at first.

After months of local and international criticism the Dominican Republic conceded on some of the issues around nationality.

In May this year the Dominican Congress unanimously approved Law 169/14. It created two categories of people: those who at some point were registered in the Dominican civil registry, and those whose birth was never declared. Individuals in the first group now have the possibility of having their Dominican nationality fully returned in a quick procedure- a positive step forward.

However, the second group will now be categorized as foreigners and will have to apply for Dominican nationality from scratch.

For families like the Nuels, the law is a mixed blessing. It is good news for Liliana who should soon have her Dominican nationality fully restored and her identity documents issued. But what will happen to her kids?

The answer is complicated, and reveals just how arbitrary, discriminatory and divisive the Dominican Republic's practices still are.

When she was born in 2010, Liliana's eldest daughter Maria Luisa was given a pink proof-of-birth certificate by the hospital - indicating that she is considered a foreigner. The administration of these documents does not follow any set criteria. During the many interviews I conducted I often heard the same story: hospital staff usually base their decisions on how French the parents' names sound or how dark their skin is.

But, Maria Luisa's younger brother and sister, both born in a different hospital in 2012 and 2014, were given white proof-of-birth certificates, reserved for babies considered to be Dominicans.

The Nuel family could soon face a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Even though all three children were born in the same province to a mother who has lived her whole life in the Dominican Republic, the simple colour of a piece of paper means that one child might be stateless while her two siblings can access Dominican citizenship.

"I don't know if my daughter will be [allowed to attend] school because she doesn't have a [Dominican] birth certificate," Liliana told me.

The confusion has gone on long enough. The Dominican Republic can't keep avoiding responsibility for a situation they have created. Every family has the right to be protected and now the Dominican state must explain how they will resolve situations like Liliana's.

There is no doubt that the government has taken a first positive step, but this must be followed by the full recognition of Dominican nationality for all those born in the country before 2010, whether they are in the civil registry or not. Under international law, the Dominican Republic is obliged to avoid any case of statelessness.

As the new school term rolls around next month, we can only hope the government rights these wrongs sooner rather than later, so little Maria Luisa can be registered and start school along with all the other Dominican children her age.


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