The Human Rights Disaster in the Dominican Republic

by Neil H. Buchanan

[Update: A reader has provided a link to the letter that I describe in Paragraph 6 of this post:]

One of the news stories that has been rattling around in the background over the last few years is a human rights crisis in the Dominican Republic (DR), which was set off by a 2013 ruling of the DR's highest court that Dominicans of Haitian descent -- even those from families who had lived in the DR for generations -- were to be stripped of their citizenship.  I recall seeing a few headlines and worrying about what might be happening, but the media's coverage of the situation was sufficiently muted that I had not consciously engaged with any of the details.

As it happens, one of my recent former research assistants, who is now an attorney here in Washington, is a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent two years in the DR before starting law school.  He and some other Peace Corps alums have recently been trying to bring the situation in the DR to the attention of U.S. policymakers.  Having done some background research on the issues involved, I devoted my new Verdict column to the story.  The situation is truly scary.

Because the Dominican Republic is the less poor of the two countries on the island of Hispaniola, ethnic Haitians have migrated to the DR over the decades.  The situation has led to a fairly predictable set of social and economic problems, with different skin colors and different languages leading to systematic discrimination against Dominicans of Haitian descent.  Still, the DR has been their home, both as a matter of fact and law.  In 2013, the court ruling that I noted above set off a completely unnecessary internal crisis.  The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the DR in 2014, finding that the government had engaged in "a pattern of expulsions," including "collective expulsions."

My Verdict column describes some of the details of the situation, noting in particular an important letter that the returned Peace Corps volunteers sent earlier this month to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.  The DR has predictably responded by saying, in essence, that those do-gooders should keep their noses out of a sovereign country's affairs, and that there is nothing to worry about in any event.  In the column, I endorse the idea that the U.S. should respond by saying, "You know what?  You're right.  We will stay out of your affairs.  And we'll take our foreign aid with us on the way out the door."

Before the Peace Corps returnees sent their letter to Secretary Kerry, another group letter was sent to President Obama in July.  Written by Florida International University Professor of Law Ediberto Roman, and signed by over 100 professors at American law schools (including my GW colleagues Eleanor Brown, Burlette Carter, and Robert Cottrol), the letter calls on the president to issue a public statement and take some diplomatic steps to stop the crisis before it gets worse.

The DR's embassy in Washington has responded by claiming that this is all a big mistake.  The ambassador even sent a letter to Professor Roman, stating that the ambassador wanted to "clarify the scandalous and misleading facts" in the letter that Professor Roman had drafted.  (I cannot find that letter on-line, but it is certainly not confidential, and it is being circulated widely.)  [Note: See update at the beginning of this post.]  The DR government's position is, essentially: "Hey, we all have immigration problems, don't we?  But don't worry, because we've put in place a process that allows people to regain citizenship, and we even have some statistics to show you that the process is working."  As I explain below, these reassurances are difficult to take seriously.

An article in the PanAm Post on July 1 describes the situation on the ground in the DR.  Despite the government's claims that everything is being handled according to the rule of law, there is so much panic among ethnically Haitian Dominicans that many have fled the country, "self-deporting" to prevent themselves from being forcibly removed by Dominican security forces or others.

Two further points merit emphasis here:

First, that PanAm Post article raises the prospect that the DR's procedures for re-establishing citizenship are a sham.  A group called Jesuit Service to Migrants, which operates in a border area, claimed that, "[i]n a maneuver to confuse and mislead national and international public opinion, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has asked the workers of this office … to open the offices, comply with a work schedule, but not assist anyone who comes by."

This is an old trick, of course.  (I recall a story about a French ruse in the 1980's to reduce imports from Japan by creating what is known politely as a "non-trade barrier."  The French government set up a "port of entry" in the mountains in the middle of the country, accessible only by smaller-than-standard delivery trucks, with one desultory customs inspector assigned to process the incoming goods.)  The ambassador's claim that 290,000 people have requested processing under the DR government's National Regularization Plan, and that "each applicant" will receive a review -- that is, case-by-case review of required documentation -- by the end of August (less than two weeks from now, and only 40 days from the date of the ambassador's letter) is certainly difficult to believe.

Second, as Professor Roman points out at the end of that PanAm Post article, the DR government should not be allowed to hide behind the notion that this is an "immigration issue" in the first place.  We are not talking about people who are showing up and now need to be processed under normal immigration rules.  Instead, this whole crisis was set off by the decision to take away the citizenship of some Dominicans on the basis of their ancestry.

The ambassador's letter claims that no deportations have occurred and that no one will be deprived of Dominican nationality, if they deserve it.  He adds: "In fact, individuals who have voluntarily left the Dominican Republic are entitled to return and apply for residential status."  For the DR now to claim that they are magnanimously allowing people to stay, and that they will allow those who "voluntarily" departed to return, if only they can regularize their immigration status, is truly an abuse of logic.  Orwell would smile knowingly.

The misdirection includes the ambassador's assurance that "the Dominican Republic will continue to support its immigrant community, including providing access to free public services, such as healthcare and education."  Sounds good, right?  Leaving aside questions about the quality of such services, the point of such a statement is to "other" the people involved.  It is not, in this view, a story about Dominicans who were suddenly told to prove that they are truly worthy.  It is about the DR's "immigrant community."

The letter and policy advocacy by the Peace Corps returnees have started to make a serious difference.  The DR government finds itself under an increasingly unflattering spotlight, called out for its actions in dealing with this self-inflicted problem.  Although the U.S. government is unlikely to cut funding for the DR in response to this increasingly worrisome situation, greater public awareness could generate sufficient pressure to cause a change in policy, to the benefit of a very vulnerable community.