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(Washington, D.C.) February 12, 2014 — In September the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic issued a ruling which affirmed the discriminatory and arbitrary denial of nationality to Dominicans of foreign descent which Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and our partners in the Dominican Republic have long worked to change. This story was originally published in December 2013, and an audio update has been added today.

What did the Constitutional Court ruling (TC 168-13) say? 

The Court case centered on Juliana Deguis Pierre, who was born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian parents in 1984.  She was registered as a Dominican citizen at birth, and considers herself to be fully Dominican. When she reached adulthood, she went to the local civil registry office to get an ID card. Rather than issuing an ID card, the civil registry confiscated her birth certificate and put it under indefinite suspension. With her documents suspended, Juliana was in a terrible limbo—unable to register the births of her children or participate in most aspects of Dominican life. 

In desperation, she pursued relief through to court system. After multiple appeals, her case came before the Constitutional Court which not only denied the existence of her citizenship, but also ordered the Dominican government to examine all cases like Juliana’s from 1929 until the present day and similarly deny the nationality of those individuals. 

There are tens of thousands of Dominicans of foreign descent whose cases are nearly identical to Juliana's. All of these individuals are now at risk of statelessness and are extremely vulnerable to abuse. While the scope of the ruling—going back four generations—is appalling, this alarming court case is best understood as the worsening of a long term problem. 

Audio update posted February 12, 2014:

What is the history of this issue in the Dominican Republic?

The Dominican Republic has long had a jus soli nationality system, meaning that an individual was granted Dominican citizenship simply by being born on Dominican soil, with the exception of children of diplomats and those in transit. With the adoption of a new Migration Law in 2004, some portions of the Dominican government began to claim that the children of undocumented migrants should not be granted citizenship because, according to their logic, being undocumented was equivalent to being "in transit."

In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rejected this argument in Yean y Bosico v. Dominican Republic, and instead found that the Dominican government could not justify the denial of nationality based on the migratory status of an individual’s parents, and that the definition of "in transit" must acknowledge that a person who has developed meaningful ties to Dominican society cannot reasonably be labeled as "in transit." 

Rather than changing its laws and practices to comply with this binding Court decision, the government entity responsible for overseeing the civil registry issued Circular 17, which orders civil registry officers to suspend all suspect documentation for investigation. In practices, officials admitted to using skin color, physical appearance, and Haitian names to identify people for investigation. Shortly thereafter, Resolution 12-2007 was issued which affirms the process through which allegedly suspect documentation can be suspended. 

In 2010, the Dominican Constitution was reformed. Among other changes, the nationality provision was altered to explicitly state that the children of undocumented migrants were not eligible for birthright citizenship. However, the Constitution contains some safeguards. Article 18.2 says that people who enjoyed Dominican nationality before the 2010 Constitution entered into effect would maintain their nationality. Article 110 says that the law cannot be retroactively applied unless it is in a way that will be favorable to the affected person. 

Who is affected by this issue?

There are now four categories of people affected by the systematic discrimination against Dominicans of foreign descent, and especially those of Haitian descent. First are the people who, despite being born in the Dominican Republic, were not registered at birth and have subsequently not been able to gain any form of documentation, or who had some form of documentation but then had it suspended or put under indefinite review. This group has existed for a long time, but has grown significantly in the last decade under the system of practices envisioned by the 2004 Migration Law, Circular 17 and Resolution 12-2007. 

The second group is made up of children who have been born to undocumented migrants since 2010 and who, under the new Constitution, are not entitled to Dominican citizenship. 

Finally, there is the group of Dominicans of foreign descent who were stripped of their nationality by the Constitutional Court's decision to apply new criteria for nationality in a retroactive manner, going back 84 years. This last group contains individuals who have had Dominican identification cards and passports for decades, who have attended university, and worked in the formal economy. 

We cannot know for sure how many people are in each of these categories. A survey conducted by the Dominican government and the UN Population Fund this spring estimates that there are 244,151 first generation Dominicans of foreign descent. While some of these people are the children of documented migrants, the majority probably are not. Also, the Constitutional Court directed the government to review birth registrations back to 1929, clearly encompassing more than one generation of people. Initial estimates in the media of 200,000 were relying on these rough baselines.

On November 7, the Dominican government announced that it had finished reviewing all birth registrations, and had identified 24,392 people who were allegedly improperly registered and therefore no longer considered Dominican citizens. This is 24,392 people who are like Juliana in the court case above. However, Juliana has four children, all of whom it seems will also lose their nationality since their mother has lost hers. Even a conservative estimate of family size indicates that more than 100,000 people will ultimately be affected if there are 24,392 primary individuals identified by the civil registry review. 

What does it mean for affected people?

Most of the individuals in all three of these groups are now effectively stateless, placing them at extreme risk of exploitation, abuse, and deportation. They are unable to attend school, take graduation exams, attend college, access employment in the formal sector, legally marry, register the births of their children, open a bank account, get a loan, access government social programs, get a passport, or vote.

Beyond these tangible barriers, the denial of documentation and nationality also has important psychological impacts on the identity, resilience and aspirations of affected people. Additionally, events like the recent Constitutional Court decision create a climate in which discrimination, violence and exploitation flourish, manifesting in mob violence which targets Haitians and those presumed to be of Haitian ancestry. 

What is happening now?

With very few exceptions, the international community, civil society, and the faith community have been united in denouncing this ruling. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will be visiting the Dominican Republic the week of December 2, 2013, to conduct a more comprehensive analysis of the human rights situation and to provide a preliminary analysis of the impacts of the Constitutional Court ruling. We join with others around in the world in urging the Dominican government to stay implementation of the Court ruling until the preliminary findings from the Commission are received, reviewed, and fully taken into account. 

Check back for more updates as the situation progresses.

Related stories on our website can be found by clicking here.

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JRS works in more than 50 countries worldwide to meet the educational, health, social and other needs of approximately 700,000 refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, more than half of whom are women. JRS services are available to refugees and displaced persons regardless of their race, ethnic origin, or religious beliefs.
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