In 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic declared that the descendants of undocumented Haitian immigrants who were born in the country since 1929 were not legally Dominicans. This left thousands of citizens without a nationality, and led to a series of protests both inside and outside the country. The Dominican government was confronted by a wave of criticism in the international community, which argued that the ruling was a threat to human rights, and was based on racism against those citizens born in the Dominican Republic who are of Haitian descent.

The ruling effectively rendered a huge swathe of people stateless, disenfranchising them and preventing them from participating in their country’s political processes and formal economy. Persons of Haitian descent were denied identity cards, meaning that they could not enter the formal workforce, open bank accounts, apply for universities, marry legally or register the births of their children.

To make matters worse, since many of the people affected by the ruling are Spanish-speakers born in the Dominican Republic, they couldn’t return to their “country of origin” even if they wanted to.

In 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic declared that the descendants of undocumented Haitian immigrants who were born in the country since 1929 were not legally Dominicans. This left thousands of citizens without a nationality, and led to a series of protests both inside and outside the country. The Dominican government was confronted by a wave of criticism in the international community, which argued that the ruling was a threat to human rights, and was based on racism against those citizens born in the Dominican Republic who are of Haitian descent.

The ruling effectively rendered a huge swathe of people stateless, disenfranchising them and preventing them from participating in their country’s political processes and formal economy. Persons of Haitian descent were denied identity cards, meaning that they could not enter the formal workforce, open bank accounts, apply for universities, marry legally or register the births of their children. To make matters worse, since many of the people affected by the ruling are Spanish-speakers born in the Dominican Republic, they couldn’t return to their “country of origin” even if they wanted to.

The Dominican authorities initially claimed that just 13,000 Haitian descendants were affected, whereas the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that the actual number was over 210,000. By May 2014, the Dominican government had bowed to domestic and international pressure, including a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The Congress passed Law 169-14, which regularized the status for the children of migrants who have birth certificates, and provided a path for those who do not to prove that they were born in the Dominican Republic. 

The new Law mitigates some of the most egregious consequences of the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling by recognizing the citizenship of those who possess birth certificates between 1929 and 2007 (a period when the Dominican Constitution granted citizenship to all children of residents). This will significantly reduce the population at risk of losing citizenship. The Law was approved by the National Congress without any objections and the government is launching a campaign to educate the nation on the Law’s benefits and application.

However, the Law still creates some legal uncertainties because it does not automatically grant citizenship to all persons born in the Dominican Republic post-2007 and because many people born between 1929 and 2007 were never registered.  During that time, impoverished Dominicans of Haitian descent were either unable to or actively prevented from registering births. As a result, they will still lose Dominican citizenship, and may be rendered stateless, even if they were born in the Dominican Republic. The government has said that they are accepting other forms of proof that they were born in the Dominican Republic, and that they will give people two years to provide this proof.

Additionally, the Law does maintain some parts of the Constitutional Tribunal’s doctrine.   Namely, that persons born and registered between 1929 and 2007 are citizens if their parents had formal migrant status. Since much of the labor migration from Haiti during the 20th century was informal this could leave individuals, who are registered as Dominicans, vulnerable to denationalization at a future date because of the status of their parents.

Lastly, birth certificates found to have been issued as the result of fraud, impersonation or misrepresentation will be excluded from recognition of validity. The law leaves unclear how such determinations will be conducted; it should guarantee an independent judicial process. In many cases, an invalid birth registration will also leave individuals stateless.

During his visit to the Dominican Republic this July, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the topic of citizenship laws, urging Haitian and Dominican leaders to collaborate on a humane solution because of the high number of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. "It won't be easy," he said. "This requires compromise and tough consultations. It requires your compassion as human beings and as leaders of this country." He warned against the “privatization of nationality” and urged the protection of people’s rights.

The Dominican government has said that they will try to regulate the statuses of, and create a path towards either citizenship or formal work status, for most of the people affected. The process will begin with two-year temporary residence visas, which should allow people to gather paperwork and proof of their “roots in the country,” in the words of Aníbal de Castro, the Dominican Ambassador to the US. Hopefully this process will be undertaken with transparency and ultimately enable people to remain in their country with their families and enjoy the same opportunities as Dominicans of Dominican descent.