This article by Edwidge Danticat appeared in The Miami Herald.
Ana María Belique Delba and Noemi Mendez were both born and raised on bateyes, or sugarcane workers’ compounds, in the Dominican Republic. Ana María’s parents are from Haiti while Noemi’s hail from the D.R.
Noemi is a leading human rights attorney who’s fought alongside Ana María to get her birth certificate from Dominican authorities, so that Ana María could get an identity card, or cedula, which makes it possible for a person to attend school or get a job. Over several days, during a recent visit to Miami, the women — one with skin the color of chocolate and the other the color of caramel — sometimes act like sisters, sometimes like mother and daughter. Ana María uses her Spanish accented Creole to translate for Noemi during stops at churches and radio stations. They share meals. They share laughs. They share an important cause: redefining citizenship in their homeland.
On September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic ruled that citizenship can only be granted to people who were born to one Dominican parent since 1929. Asked to rule in the case of one person, a Dominican-born woman named Juliana Deguis Pierre, who like Ana María was seeking identity papers, the court decided to render Ms. Pierre, Ana María, and retroactively, four generations of their compatriots, stateless. This would be as if American adults, whose grandparents came to the United States in the 1930s, suddenly had their citizenship stripped away. In the meantime, they would be expected to apply to their grandparents’ birthplace for papers.
Officially the Dominican constitution grants citizenship to all who are born in the country, unless they are the children of people who are “in transit,” such as tourists or diplomats. Which begs the question: Can one be in transit for 85 years? Even by the most exclusionary definitions of citizenship, this one puts it beyond the reach of most people.
The Dominican high court’s ruling, which both Ana María and Noemi constantly refer to as “ la sentencia,” ominously uses the cut off year, 1929, which is when the Haitian and Dominican governments signed boundary treaties defining the two countries’ borders, which were later redrawn in 1935 and again in 1936, a year before Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of thousands of Haitians in the DR.
The Great Depression also started in August 1929, leading to a considerable drop in demand for Dominican sugar. Suddenly migrant Haitian labor was less needed. Thousands who’d built a life in the Dominican Republic and had contributed to its economy, stayed there, even with the specter of Trujillo’s genocide hanging over their heads.
So how does one define citizenship under these circumstances? I ask Ana María and Noemi. Aside from its own constitution, the Dominican Republic is a signatory to major international treaties and conventions, including the 1958 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly states that everyone has a right to a nationality and that, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” Furthermore revoking an individual’s citizenship is often an act of punishment for treason or other high crimes.
But for both Noemi and Ana María, who is a founding member of a pro citizenship youth movement in the Dominican Republic called reconocido (or accepted) the notion of citizenship is much more personal than that. At 27 years old, Ana María reminds me of the many young people I often meet here in Miami, undocumented young men and women who call themselves Dreamers. Though Dreamers were not born here, they came to America with their parents as children and have known, or can remember, no other country but this one. Still, they are unable to get driver’s licenses or go to college and they live in constant fear of deportation.
Ana María speaks not only of her own predicament but that of other young Dominicans with parents born elsewhere. Her own brother is afraid to go to the Dominican capital for fear of being grabbed off the street by the army and dumped at the border. A religious friend cannot officially marry because he was refused papers. Another could not apply to the university. People who are refused identification papers then cannot register their own children, continuing a potentially endless cycle.
According to a 2005 UNICEF report, “The ‘Rights’ Start to Life,” birth registration “is a fundamental human right and an essential means of protecting a child’s right to an identity.” It is what kicks in our freedoms and liberties and other privileges, which keeps us from being considered outsiders forever.
“Having citizenship is of course a question of rights,” Ana María tells some local supporters over lunch. “Here you have rights that are being taken away. But it’s also a question of culture, identity, and personal relationships to where you are.”
After she was able to finally obtain her birth certificate and a passport, Ana María traveled to Brazil where she was given an opportunity to stay. Instead, she returned home, to the Dominican Republic, “to work for a better future for my country.”
“If only those who are trying to exclude us only knew how much we love our country,” she says. “While many Dominicans dream of getting a visa and coming to the United States, my dream has always been to stay and serve my country. When we were kids, we didn’t fly the Haitian flag, we flew the Dominican flag. We love our parents, but we knew nothing of Haiti. Even with everything that’s going on, I still love my country.”
For Noemi Mendez, who has seen the power of opportunity in her own rise from a child of the bateys to an internationally recognized defender of human rights, the issue of citizenship is also a personal one.
“Because of my training as a lawyer, I know you’d expect a technical definition from me,” she says, “but when I think of citizenship, I also think of family. When I think of the nation, la patria, I think of it as one large family, which tries to get along, in spite of its tensions and difficulties.
“When Dominicans of Haitian descent and others are excluded from citizenship, to me it is as if a father or a mother is rejecting and throwing out my own brother or sister.”
Close to three months after the court’s ruling, the Dominican government has announced, via presidential decree, a national regularization plan for “foreigners.”
According to the decree, signed by Dominican president Danilo Medina, access to citizenship would be based on several criteria including education level, employment, property ownership, all of which are beyond the reach, from birth, of people who have no access to identity papers. Those who are ineligible under these criteria can ask to be repatriated or be deported.
As they return home, Ana María and Noemi worry that a new digitalized cedula system, being prepared in time for the 2016 presidential elections, will exclude even more Haitians of Dominican descent, who are estimated at nearly a quarter of a million, for fear that they might shift the electorate.
Dominican authorities must repeal the September 23 court ruling, they say, not only because it is arbitrary, discriminatory, unconstitutional, and unjust, but also because it has caused a crisis of confidence in the very notion of democracy itself. For how can a country function as a representative democracy when it so drastically limits the rights of several generations born on its soil: the right to an education, the right to work, the right to own property, the right to healthcare, as well as the right to vote.
Still what Ana María — who has already been arrested while participating in protests and sit-ins — calls a “civil genocide” continues, as does her determination and Noemi’s to fight against it.
“A country that does not respect its citizens,” Ana María says, “is a country that negates its own laws. Our lives are suspended. I, and thousand of others like me, are no longer considered citizens. We cannot be foreigners on our own soil.”
Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American writer, living in Miami. Her most recent novel is “Claire of the Sea Light.”