If you think back on your day, can you count the ways your citizenship affected you? Being a member of a country is an intangible concept many take for granted. However, this privilege affects almost every aspect of our daily lives.
Statehood simply means belonging to a country. The term nationality, or belonging to a nation, is also commonly used, as is the term citizenship. This concept seems simple, but the way statehood is assigned can be complex. There are two general ways countries determine statehood. One system is based on birthplace. This is often referred to as jus soli, or “right of soil.” Another system, jus sanguinis, is based on national or ethnic lineage. This literally translates to “right of blood.” This is more complicated because it can be based on maternal or paternal lineage and first or older generations.
The norm in the Western Hemisphere, an area marked by a history of momentous immigration, is to base statehood on jus soli. If a newborn baby is granted statehood where he or she is born, it is unlikely that the person will become stateless. Therefore, there are few areas in the Western Hemisphere with a significant population of stateless people.
The Development of Jus Sanguinis in the Dominican Republic
Over time, the Dominican Republic contradicted the hemisphere’s norm of jus soli. In the Dominican Republic, about 200,000 people are currently stateless. Most of these people are of Haitian descent. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island historically known as Hispaniola. Spanish and French settlers came to the island in the 15th century. They all but annihilated the indigenous population and brought many people from Africa as slaves. In the 17th century, Spain ceded the Western third of the island to France. The French portion of the island became Haiti, and the Spanish portion became the Dominican Republic. The two countries have long and complex histories, but until 1937 they shared a fluid border.
In 1937, the dictator Trujillo ordered the genocide of thousands of Dominican residents with Haitian heritage. The differentiation of ethnicity was largely based on dialect and physical features. Haitians are generally considered “more Black.” Trujillo wanted the Dominican Republicans to be associated with their Spanish ancestors and not considered Black, despite his own Haitian heritage. This racial prejudice undergirds much of the discrimination of Haitians. There is also a socio-economic component to the discrimination: present-day Haiti is significantly poorer than the Dominican Republic. Many Haitians have immigrated to the Dominican Republic for economic opportunity, and work in agricultural and service sectors.
During the 20th century, the Dominican Republic continued to offer citizenship to people who were born in the country despite their parents’ historical statehood. However, there were periodic reports of people being refused birth certificates or other documents based on their presumed ethnic heritage. In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights specifically investigated this issue, finding the country’s current practice and application of law to be a discriminatory infringement of the Republic’s constitution.
The Dominican Republic did not respond well to being rebuked. In 2013, a woman who had previously been issued a birth certificate was told that her certificate was invalid based on the fact that her parents were immigrants. She brought her case before the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal (think Supreme Court). At this time, the court interpreted the constitution to mean that children of undocumented parents are not eligible for citizenship. The interpretation was applied unanimously and retroactively, meaning anyone who was born after 1929 was subject to the judgement. Immediately, about 200,000 Dominicans’ citizenship were annulled. Not eligible for citizenship elsewhere, they became stateless.
The individuals who were stripped of their statehood are known colloquially as las afectados or “the affected.” The implications of being statelessness are far reaching. Without statehood, an individual cannot get a passport, legally work, marry, open a bank account or get a loan, get a driver’s license, vote, or attend school. Individuals are also not subject to protections of the legal system and may not see justice for crimes such as assault or rape.
The Dominican executive branch enacted a pathway to re-naturalization. Those without citizenship were eligible to re-apply until February 28th, 2015, but they needed several state-issued documents. The deadline for submitting the required documentation was May 31st, 2015. On that date, all who had not successfully completed applications or had declined applications were eligible for deportation. Only about 9,000 of the 200,000 stateless persons successfully completed applications.
One might ask: to where could stateless individuals be deported? Some of those affected are living in migrant camps on the border. Last year, about 4,000 people were estimated to be living in these camps.
While there is significant support of The Sentence in the Dominican Republic, many have pushed back, including our fellow Brethren. The Church of the Brethren was founded in the Dominican Republic in the wake of disaster response work following a hurricane in 1979. Today, the Dominican Brethren include about 1,650 members in 21 congregations.
The Church of the Brethren in the Dominican Republic actively supported its stateless members. One way the church was able to do this was through the naturalization process. Brethren Disaster Ministries and Global Mission and Service financially supported this effort.
Church World Service (CWS) has distributed emergency supplies to camps in the form of meat, hygiene kits, blankets, and baby kits (when the Church of the Brethren Disaster Ministries collects kits, they are distributed by Church World Service).
Exodus 22:21–23: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.”
Creator God, we pause to remember those who are stateless, living in limbo. Grant us the courage to care for them; they are connected to us by our shared heritage of your creation. We pray for those who are already acting as Jesus’ hands and feet, working with the oppressed. We ask you to illuminate the ways we can engage our churches, communities, and governments to eliminate statelessness.
Further Reading and Sources:
Blake: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Race-Based Statelessness in the Americas
Church World Service: Emergency Situation Report Update: Haiti-Dominican Republic Statelessness
Nolan: Displaced in the D.R. A country strips 210,000 of citizenship
Church of the Brethren: Global Mission and Service-Haiti
Church of the Brethren: Partners- Dominican Republic
State of Uncertainty: Citizenship, Statelessness and Discrimination in the Dominican Republic
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