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Dominicans of Haitian descent who have been able to find jobs work in the low-paying informal sector. They are unable to travel, access social benefits, legally marry, or declare their children. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) February 7, 2013 — Yesterday, I met with approximately 50 young people from a handful of bateys* surrounding Bayaguana who have been affected by escalating policy changes that since 2007 deny access to documentation (in some cases retroactively) to Dominicans of Haitian descent. I traveled with Roberto, the Project Coordinator for Fundación Etnica Integral (FEI), over paved highways that, as we near our destination, turn into bumpy, rut-filled dirt roads.

We stop at a church on the edge of Bayaguana that also serves as a space for community meetings.  A circle of white plastic chairs are quickly arranged and filled by young people in bright clothing.  I sit down in the middle of a group of young women with Marissa and Julia on my left, Paulina and Evelyn on my right.  

Over the next two and a half hours, about a dozen young people share their stories, and the ways in which they have been impacted by the denationalization project of the Dominican government. 

Marissa, sitting beside me, talks first and begins with her family: her mother is Dominican, but her father is an immigrant who doesn’t have documentation. Four years ago, when she was 17, she applied for an authorized copy of her documentation so that she could take her high school completion exam. In the four years since, despite repeated follow-up, she has received no response. She is unable to attend university or get a job in the formal sector. Now, she has a one-year-old daughter who she is unable to declare because of her own effective lack of documentation. 

Elena shares her story next. Since 2007, she also has been denied access to authorized copies of her birth certificate and identity card. She has two children— one who is two years old, and another only seven months old, neither of whom have been declared. Her partner is a Dominican man, but in the Dominican Republic, mothers register their children and fathers claim paternity. Mothers may register as single mothers if the father does not have documentation, but there is no way for fathers to register as single fathers. She is worried about the future of her children who, in the eyes of the state, don’t even exist.

From all around the circle, young people speak up. At one point, we ask how many of them completed high school, but were either unable to take their completion exam or unable to go on to university because their status was suspended, or because they were denied access to authorized copies of their documentation. Nearly everyone in the room nods.

For those who have been able to find jobs, they work in the tenuous low-paying informal sector. They are unable to travel, access social benefits, legally marry, or declare their children. Person after person speaks about the overwhelming sense of being trapped, of being stuck. 

Though some speak with resigned despair, others speak of hope. Many reference the organizations that accompany them, including Centro Bonó of the Jesuit Migration Service. With countless hours of legal accompaniment, some of them have won their cases, and others may do so in the future.  

One young man reminds his peers that even if their individual case is resolved, they must not abandon the others. Another young man, who won his case last year but remains involved in the movement, explains that he remains involved out of solidarity, but also because despite having documentation now, he still lost five years of his life and numerous opportunities to the harmful impacts of this policy regime. 

Eventually, the circle falls into silence. I have more questions, but I sense they are collectively weary of trying to explain the unexplainable.  

There is a lot about how this policy is actually playing out that is still unclear, and a lot to learn over the course of the next week and a half. But one thing is certain: the impact of this set of policies is only gaining momentum. The denial of documents began in earnest in 2007, so the first group of children born under this new reality is just now hitting school age. For the purposes of the Dominican government, many of them don’t even exist.  

The effects of statelessness are terrible, and they worsen as they become intergenerational. Right now, these policies prevent young people from accessing higher education and good jobs, but we’re on the cusp of watching elementary-aged children be turned away from school. 

It is for this reason that Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, in collaboration with our Jesuit partners in the Dominican Republic, has committed to accompanying these young people and using bi-national advocacy to amend and, ultimately reverse, this set of policies.         

By Mary Small, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Assistant Director for Policy, currently in the Dominican Republic. 

*Bateys are rural communities in the Dominican Republic that developed around the sugarcane industry.

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