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Diaspora Sounds Alarm As Dominicans Face Statelessness

Politicians in the Dominican Republic have long courted Dominicans in the U.S. for votes. That relationship has strengthened in the past couple of years; in 2011, the Dominican government established seven representatives for its communities abroad.

And that influence means activism in the U.S. matters back on the island.

Writers in the U.S. took notice when the Dominican Republic made a constitutional change in September that retroactively revokes citizenship for thousands living in the country. Those born in the Dominican Republic since 1929 could lose citizenship if they don't have at least one Dominican parent. The ruling has the potential to upend the lives of thousands, mostly people of Haitian descent. It could impact everything from marriages to school eligibility, health care and travel.

Haitians, including immigrant laborers who came to work in the sugar cane industry, have long battled discrimination in the Dominican Republic. September's ruling is a far-reaching decision that follows many smaller legal battles and personal stories of injustice.

So as Dominicans of Haitian descent enter a state of legal limbo, Americans with ties to that community are mobilizing. Such action is not unprecedented, but what that looks like is changing. More generations are growing up "American," yet still culturally tied to another home. Travel and citizenship continue to present new opportunities — and legal challenges.

The Issues At Hand

Haitian-American activist Miriam Neptune says immigrant workers' legal rights have been applied unevenly over the years, and their children have run into roadblocks with various requests — a birth certificate denied, a professional license challenged.

As a coalition of accomplished writers in the U.S. — both Haitian and Dominican — noted in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, the ruling amplifies a persistent racial divide: "Dominican animosity and racial hatred of Haitians dates back to at least 1822, when the Haitian army invaded the Dominican Republic, liberated the slaves and encouraged free blacks from the United States to settle there to make Dominicans 'blacker.' "

Besides writing op-eds in major U.S. newspapers, Haitian- and Dominican-Americans are expressing outrage through community gatherings, holding protests and lectures in New York City.

People in the diaspora can have influence, says Neptune, who made the documentary Birthright Crisis with the group Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees. Through remittances, they have some economic power; Dominicans in the U.S. also have political power and social influence, she says.

While the full legal and societal effects of the ruling are yet to be realized (though there have been reports of people leaving the country and deportations), those who have been in the trenches have some pretty good guesses about what's going to happen.

One immigrants' rights group in Manhattan's Washington Heights is reaching out to lawyers, anticipating future asylum cases. Legal cases become more complicated when someone is rendered "stateless," says human rights lawyer Blaine Bookey of Hastings law school in California: Which country are you seeking asylum from?

Neptune says she worries that the random acts of violence that have already happened over the years targeting people of Haitian descent will become even more prevalent.

"If violence were to be perpetrated against these people, they have no safety net," she says. "They have no protection because the government has already disowned them."

These and other concerns have been raised in a number of responses to the ruling. Here are some of the highlights:

A 'Dreamer' By Another Name

In The New York Times on Dec. 13, Harvard assistant professor Lorgia Garcia-Peña — who studies U.S. Latino and Caribbean culture and literature — brings U.S. immigration activism into the discussion. She tells the story of two young women, one 19 and the other 18. The first grew up in the Dominican Republic; the other in the U.S. The parents of both women entered those countries illegally, and both women could be deported to an unfamiliar nation.

Garcia-Peña takes this comparison further, noting the policy ties between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic (a topic The Nation and Mother Jones have also covered). "The Dominican Constitutional Court ruling is an extreme version of the American response to the 'immigration problem' and a scary window into a possible future," she says, adding:

"The Dominican Court actions, much like Arizona's law, send the following message: We want our houses cleaned, our food prepared, our fruits picked; but we don't want you here and we do not want you to be our equals."

The Dark History Of Statelessness

The Los Angeles Times op-ed published in November was a collaboration between American journalist and author Mark Kurlansky, Dominican-American novelist and poet Julia Alvarez, Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz.

They give a rough timeline of institutionalized racism in the country and draw parallels to slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust ("the first step toward genocide is to strip a people of their right to citizenship").

Along with other activists, they ask the yet-to-be-answered question, "What will happen now to these quarter of a million people who will be stateless?" Consider, it asks, how they will study, work, marry, open bank accounts or even leave the country.

A Dominican Response

Such denouncements of the law have been denounced themselves by writers in the Dominican Republic. Eight such writers have called out Dominican-American Junot Diaz, accusing him of being too far removed from the situation to know the reality on the ground, doubting his "dominicanidad."

For the Dominican news outlet El Caribe, Robert Takata defends the law, pointing to government resources used by immigrants, saying that such a change will allow the country to focus on building itself up.

"The fact that the Dominican Republic is strengthening its institutions and its processes is beneficial for the country itself but also for Haiti," he says.

Creating a new immigration system will ultimately strengthen the country's global standing, Takata argues.

Political Pressure

Other editorials have suggested specific action to pressure the Dominican government.

It's not just New York that has a strong Dominican political contingent: The Providence, R.I., City Council has passed a resolution "that asks Dominican Republic officials to update their Constitution, remove this law, and grant citizenship to all immigrants born in the country." The paper reports that copies of the resolution will be sent to the Dominican ambassador to the U.S. and Dominican President Danilo Medina.

The Council took action because of the state's own sizable Latino population. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, a state senator, a state representative and members of the City Council all have Dominican roots. According to the Providence Journal:

"The resolution says that because Providence has a 'vibrant and politically active Dominican community,' the city is 'uniquely positioned to positively affect this situation created by this egregious ruling.' "

As the Latino population in the U.S. continues to move and change, you're likely to see more seemingly unexpected places like Providence pushing for change abroad — and having the clout to do so.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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