Garnett Roper and Danielle Roper, Guest Columnists
What if you woke up today and were told that you, your parents and your grandparents were no longer citizens of Jamaica? What if you were made to suddenly apply for permanent residency in order to remain in Jamaica and were told that your birth certificate was now invalid? This means that you would no longer be a citizen, you would lose your right to vote, to education, and to freedom of movement.
Today, this is the reality facing thousands of Dominicans who have been rendered stateless as a result of the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the Dominican Republic (DR).
On September 23, the Dominican Constitutional Court handed down a decision that retroactively stripped the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of the country's denizens. The court determined that anyone born to non-Dominican parents, who were undocumented when they entered the country, after 1929, had no claim to citizenship.
Consequently, Dominicans who were born and whose families have lived in the island for generations have suddenly been declared to be 'in transit' and must now apply for permanent residency in order to remain in a country some of them have never even left. This new law means they cannot work, go to school, open a bank account, register the birth of their children, send their children to school, get legally married, or travel. Their children are also ineligible for citizenship, even if they were born in the Dominican Republic.
While the law affects a large number of people, an estimated 86 per cent of those adversely impacted are of Haitian descent. Those who are not phenotypically black are less likely to have their citizenship status questioned.
Given the long-standing anti-Haitian sentiment within the Dominican Republic, a nationalist rhetoric that for the most part rejects blackness and the ruling's implication for the nation's black populace, the veiled racism behind the court's decision is hardly deniable.
Nor is it a coincidence that among conservative circles and sectors of local media, the recent ruling has enjoyed considerable support. For in many ways, the ruling formalises internal xenophobia and racism that subjugates and marginalises the Dominico-Haitian community and other people of African descent in the DR.
Contempt for Haitians
There is nothing new about the contempt for Haitians in the DR. The atrocities committed against Haitian nationals in the DR are manifold. Every day, construction workers cross the Massacre River from Haiti and are paid one dollar per day for their work on construction sites. They sleep on the streets and in shanties.
The ruling by the constitutional court comes in the 76th year after the 1937 massacre of 30,000 Haitians by Rafael Trujillo. The dictator slaughtered those Haitians whom he blamed for the downturn in sugar prices and instituted several practices to 'whiten' the DR. Today, little has changed in a nation where negritude continues to be treated with scorn.
Caught in legal limbo, Dominicans born to Haitian parents now live in perpetual fear of being deported to Haiti - a country many of them have never even seen. "If they grab me, I'll be in trouble because I don't know where I would go. I've never even been to Haiti," said Juliana Deguis Pierre, the woman whose legal challenge resulted in the Constitutional Court ruling September 23.
Haiti, a country with very limited resources on the other hand, has expressed alarm and outrage over the potential impact that the influx of thousands of people who neither speak their language nor have any formal citizenship would have on the nation. Needless to say, this ruling is but another step in the complex and tension-filled relations between the two nations, and many consider the new law to be essentially state-sponsored xenophobia.
In 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that citizenship of children could not be retroactively denied on the basis of the actions or status of their parents. The Dominican Supreme Court's decision, therefore, stands in contravention of international conventions, standards and practices regarding citizenship rights and the right to nationality. Our regional bodies, therefore, need to urgently respond to this egregious violation of human rights.
The recent ruling by the Constitutional Court of the DR opens the door to mass deportation. While it is unclear where exactly all these stateless citizens will be sent, we in the Caribbean are all undeniably implicated in this ruling. Not only do we need to make a statement, but we also ought to do everything we can to ally ourselves with the local organising taking place across the DR.
"Following statements and pressure from the United Nations, members of Reconoci.do were able to meet with the president of the Dominican Republic. To their disappointment, however, President Danilo Medina's government has decided to uphold the court's decision. Thus, Reconoci.do needs allies in the international community if it is to make any progress.
What is the significance of this ruling for Jamaica and CARICOM, and how should we respond to it? The island of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is, at its nearest point, 100 miles northeast of Jamaica. The mass deportation of stateless citizens by any one of our neighbours will certainly reverberate here.
Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines and soon-to-be chairman of CARICOM, is the only CARICOM leader to respond to the ruling. PM Gonsalves urged Medina to find a solution:
"Surely, this ruling by the court is unacceptable in any civilised community. It is an affront to all established international norms and elemental humanity, and threatens to make the Dominican Republic a pariah, regionally and globally."
The appropriately strong words from PM Gonsalves lay the groundwork for what should be a regional response from CARICOM. CARICOM now finds itself confronting opposite streams in relation to border control at one and the same time.
On the one hand, the Shanique Myrie ruling by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) has placed a demand on CARICOM governments to make changes in their border-control regimes. These changes should give effect to the notion of 'free movement of labour' and, by it, ensure that no CARICOM citizen is made to feel harassed in a CARICOM state.
Xenophobia and racism
On the other hand, a nation that shares the Caribbean Sea with member states has given legal effect to the most backward form of xenophobia and racism. The September 23 ruling by the DR Constitutional Court is palpably oppressive, rendering stateless thousands of its citizens.
The DR is not a member of CARICOM and the regional body ought not to accept a nation with such a law on its books into its membership, for the ruling is neither in keeping with our regional standards of human rights nor the immigration policies established by the CCJ.
Jamaica and the Caribbean were in the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1970s and beyond. This ruling by the DR's Consti-tutional Court is tantamount to the implementation of apartheid in our own backyard. We must respond. The DR signed a free trade agreement with CARICOM in 2001.
The recent decision should, at least, result in the threat of sanctions by CARICOM against the DR or the cancellation of the regional body's free trade agreement with the nation. There are many Jamaican business interests that have ties with the DR, and we ask them to raise their voices in protest against this ruling becoming the law of the land.
Senator A.J. Nicholson issued an initial concern about the ruling, but the Jamaican Government is yet to take action. We as a region must do everything possible to ensure that the rights of all Caribbean citizens are protected.
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
- Pastor Niemöller
This article is written jointly by Garnett Roper and Danielle Roper. Danielle Roper is a doctoral candidate at New York University and is currently completing her dissertation in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.