What Happened When a Nation Erased Birthright Citizenship

The Dominican Republic deported an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people of Haitian descent over three years. Those left behind live in a state of institutionalized terror.

A boy plays at a refugee camp for Haitians returning from the Dominican Republic on the outskirts of Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, September 7, 2015.
A boy plays at a refugee camp for Haitians returning from the Dominican Republic on the outskirts of Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, on September 7, 2015. (Andres Martinez Casares / Reuters)

This is a story about what happens when you limit birthright citizenship and stir up hate against a certain class of immigrants. It takes place in the Dominican Republic. Like most countries in the Americas, for a century and a half the Caribbean nation’s constitution guaranteed birthright citizenship for anyone born on its soil, with a couple of exceptions: the children of diplomats and short-term travelers. And like most other peoples in the Americas, Dominicans have had a more complicated relationship with immigration than the framers of that constitution might have anticipated.

The Dominican Republic has long been dependent on a steady stream of cheap immigrant labor that cuts its sugar cane, builds its buildings, and staffs the beach resorts that draw in billions of foreign dollars a year. Almost all of that labor comes from the only country close enough, and poor enough, to have people who want to immigrate in large numbers to the Dominican Republic: its Hispaniolan twin, Haiti. Some working-class Dominicans without clear Haitian roots resent poorer neighbors willing to accept lower wages and tough conditions. Many wealthy Dominicans who profit wildly off the cheap labor supply are eager to have strict immigration laws in place, too—not because they want less immigration, but because they want a freer hand. Immigrants in the country illegally have no protection from workplace regulations and can be rounded up, deported, and replaced whenever convenient—including right before payday. (Sound familiar?)

The Dominican Republic also has a long, brutal history of anti-Haitian racism. During his rule from 1930 to 1961, the fascist dictator Rafael Trujillo built a racialized concept of Dominican national identity on the fuzzy idea that the descendants of Spanish slavery on the eastern part of the island had higher levels of European ancestry than, and thus were superior to, the descendants of French slavery on the western part of the island. This rhetoric led to a 1937 rampage in which Dominican soldiers and allied citizens massacred thousands of people who they identified as Haitians. They forcibly separated people who’d long mixed together in vaguely delineated borderlands, consecrating a new national boundary that had been set largely by the occupying U.S. military a few years earlier, but which until then existed mostly on paper.

In the decades that followed, Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic remained largely confined to isolated company towns in the cane fields, known as bateyes. But in the late 20th century, Haitian immigrants and their Dominican-born children left to work in other parts of the Dominican economy. Nationalists, who’d grown up learning Trujillo’s propaganda, began to rethink the law.

Because nationalists tend to be political conservatives, they often feel pressure to pretend that the radical changes they’re making aren’t changes at all. In the 1990s and early 2000s, right-wing Dominican politicians tried to stretch a tiny loophole in birthright citizenship into a chasm big enough to swallow anyone of Haitian descent. Their main strategy was to claim that everyone with Haitian roots was “in transit,” no matter how long they (or even their parents) had lived in the country. Authorities also refused to issue Haitians’ children birth certificates, or ripped up the ones they had. Sympathetic local media helped make synonymous the words ilegal, inmigrante (immigrant), extranjero (foreigner), and haitiano. Even foreign reporters got used to referring to people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic—an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the Dominican population—as “Haitian migrants,” even though that category includes an estimated 171,000 Dominican-born Dominicans with two Haitian parents, and another 81,000 people with one.

Courts did not like this. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Dominican government’s treatment of people of Haitian descent violated not only international human-rights law but also the Dominican constitution. Dominican presidents ignored the rulings, and ultimately pulled out of the treaty establishing the court. In 2010, the government called a constitutional convention, in large part to exclude a new group from the birthright-citizenship clause: the children of anyone “residing illegally in Dominican territory.” Given the spotty distribution of birth certificates, faulty census-taking, and lackluster registration efforts in the country’s impoverished areas, this change was bound to create widespread confusion. But the government’s target wasn’t poor people in general. It was people of Haitian descent.

Even that maneuver was not enough. Under all international or national norms, the new provision could only apply to people born after the new constitution came into force. But Dominican nationalists were more concerned about adults than newborns. Fortunately for them, the new loophole had a loophole: a new “constitutional tribunal”—separate from the existing supreme court—given the “definitive and irrevocable” right to interpret the constitution.

In one of its first acts, the tribunal justices—picked by former President Leonel Fernández and a small group of other leaders—took up the languishing case of a Dominican of Haitian descent named Juliana Deguis Pierre. She had sued when officials in her town refused to give her a national ID card—needed to vote and access social services—because, she said, of her dark skin and Haitian last name. Instead of ruling on whether she had been discriminated against, in 2013 the tribunal declared that Pierre should never have had citizenship in the first place because her parents didn’t have sufficient documentation to prove residency when she was born. Then it went even further, ruling that all those who could not prove that their parents had been legal residents when they were born—going all the way back to 1929, when the “in transit” exception was added to the constitution—were not citizens. Those affected were ordered to register with the government as foreigners by June 17, 2015.

Again, this order was clearly aimed at people of Haitian descent. Hundreds of thousands who had been Dominican citizens all their lives suddenly risked being rendered stateless and eligible for deportation.

It was obvious to human-rights groups, the United Nations, and pretty much anyone watching that the Dominican government was doing an end run around some of the most important principles of the rule of law—namely, that you can’t change the rules and then go around punishing people for having violated them in the past. The tribunal bent over backward to argue that nothing had changed, while taking 147 pages to explain the new situation.

A fundamental fact that sometimes gets missed in discussions about laws and court rulings is that they’re just words on paper. What those words signify to the people they govern is often just as important as what the law actually says. For instance, the original 1865 jus soli, or “place-of-birth,” birthright-citizenship provision in the Dominican Republic—enacted three years before the U.S. emerged from its Civil War with a Fourteenth Amendment and jus soli provision of its own—signaled a vision of the new Dominican state as a place open to just about everyone. As the historian Anne Eller has written, the provision came in a moment of heightened international cooperation when Haitians, who had thrown off French colonialism and slavery more than 60 years earlier, helped Dominicans win their final and lasting independence from Spain.

The 2010 constitution and the tribunal’s subsequent ruling signaled the opposite: that the Dominican Republic should be a place where poorer, blacker, more vulnerable workers—Haitians—were not welcome. And Dominican nationalists were determined to push that message to the hilt. Armed with the ruling now known simply as La Sentencia—literally “the verdict”—the whole country seemingly prepared itself for a mass expulsion. The military readied deportation buses and border-processing centers for the June 2015 registration deadline. Online trolls threatened critics and spread racist invective. Facebook and Twitter were filled with an ultranationalist, anti-Haitian narrative of Dominican history, which erased historic alliances and played up real and imagined abuses. Many pushed their completely unfounded belief that the true intention of Haitian immigrants and their children was to conquer the Dominican Republic and raise Haiti’s flag over the entire island.

Many Dominicans are not bigoted against immigrants. But as the deadline neared, the voices of liberals and moderates were drowned out in a sea of nationalist invective. The government framed the growing criticism of their policies as an “international campaign to discredit the Dominican Republic.” Nationalists simply branded those who disagreed with them as traitors. Emboldened by their government, sensing the moment was at hand, armed nationalists marched through Dominico-Haitian barrios and towns. In February of 2015, a Haitian man was lynched in the center of the country’s second-largest city, Santiago. When television footage of his body left dangling from a tree spread across the country, Santiago police blamed two undocumented Haitian immigrants for the crime. Dominican nationalists held a rally nearby and burned a Haitian flag.

Under pressure from the international community and fearing tourism boycotts, President Danilo Medina caved—somewhat. He proposed a second registration program that would offer a path back to citizenship to some of the people his government had just made stateless. The details were confusing, but that was the point. Hundreds of thousands of people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic now lived in a state of institutionalized terror, enforced by police, the military, and vigilante mobs. Instead of the feared one-day mass expulsions that had drawn so much attention, Dominican authorities took a quieter approach. They deported an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 people of Haitian descent—more than a quarter of the Dominico-Haitian population—piecemeal over the next three years, according to Human Rights Watch. Tens of thousands more felt they had no choice but to escape across the border on their own.

In late 2015, I went to the Haitian border to visit makeshift camps that were home to thousands of people who had fled for their lives. Many had never been to Haiti before and didn’t know where to go. They had taken shelter in shacks made of cardboard boxes, tree branches, old clothes, and whatever other scraps they could find. Food was scarce. The shacks frequently burned down. People were forced to get their water from a dirty river. I met a grieving couple whose son had just died from cholera.

Many in the camps told me that they hoped the situation would soon calm down, and that they would be able to return. I doubt many have. According to Human Rights Watch, the Dominican government has only restored citizenship documents to about 19,000 of those denationalized in the five years since La Sentencia. Violence continues to break out between nationalists and people of Haitian descent along the border. Fear runs high. One leader of the Dominican hard right has proposed building a border wall. (No word on who might pay for it.)

Nor are there any clear signs that the purges and intimidation have helped non-Haitian Dominicans. Thanks largely to the fact that Americans and Europeans still flock to the country’s all-inclusive resorts, the Dominican economy is still growing. But that growth has slowed.

On the eve of the feared mass expulsions, to drive home the absurdity and danger, the renowned Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat compared the situation to a wild hypothetical: “It’s as if the United States said, ‘Yes, everybody who has been here since 1930, you have to prove you’re a citizen. You have to go back to the place where you come from to get a birth certificate from there.’”

For some Americans, that was not a joke. It was an aspiration. Breitbart readers roared their approval for the Dominican strategy under an article about the planned expulsions in June 2015. Several weighed in with racist invective about “the black Haitian people.” “Get Some, Dominican Republic!” one commenter wrote. Another felt inspired: “It is past time that we end birthright citizenship here in the US. I wouldn’t be as extreme as the DR was. Ending it retroactively for anyone born after 1929 seems a bit harsh but I would have no problem ending it for anyone born after 1980 … It is time for America to put Americans first.”

The day before the migrant registration deadline in the Dominican Republic, Donald Trump rode the gold escalator into the lobby of his New York office building and declared his candidacy for the White House with a racist tirade against immigrants. Before the summer was over, he announced his intention to end place-based birthright citizenship. As president, Trump has hired several opponents of jus soli birthright citizenship to immigration posts. One of them, Senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Advisor Jon Feere, has praised the “clarity” of the Dominican Republic’s new immigration-limiting constitution.

Before the midterm elections, President Trump declared that he wanted to repeal the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment through an executive order. To anyone even passingly familiar with constitutional law, that seems like nonsense. Automatic place-based birthright citizenship has been a well-established practice for white immigrants since the United States was founded. It was enshrined as a universal right in the Fourteenth Amendment, and has been upheld for people of all races and classes since a Supreme Court decision in 1898. A U.S. president can’t just throw out part of the constitution—as even the outgoing Republican speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, noted.

But as Dominicans have ably shown, the most extreme rhetoric has a way of becoming real. And the consequences of inciting millions of people against vulnerable groups of immigrants are impossible to control. Representative Steve King—a freshly reelected white-supremacist Republican from Iowa who favorably retweets neo-Nazis—regularly introduces bills that are eerily similar to the Dominican law: denying birthright citizenship to anyone without a parent who is a citizen or “lawful permanent resident” of the United States. In late October, King crowed: “I am very happy that my legislation will soon be adopted by the White House as national policy.” And supposedly sober-minded conservatives may be little help. Days after criticizing the president, Ryan tried to walk back his comments, telling Fox News that he agreed the Fourteenth Amendment “should be reviewed.”