Haitian immigrants' kids in limbo, Dominican Republic denies them citizenship

By Oscar Avila Chicago Tribune
September 28, 2008

HAINA, Dominican Republic - Officially, Carlos Noel does not exist.

Although his French last name is a giveaway that his family roots go back to neighboring Haiti, Noel is not an illegal immigrant living in the shadows like his parents. Noel was born in this country and, according to the constitution, entitled to citizenship.

But under a strict new policy, the Dominican government has refused to issue ID cards to Noel and tens of thousands of others whose parents were illegal immigrants.

That policy, which flouts a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, essentially leaves Noel without a country. The dispute is another example of how countries, including the United States, are debating how to treat the children of illegal immigrants.

The more pressing concern, according to human-rights advocates, is that the Caribbean nation is fostering a permanent underclass of Haitian descent, residents who will forever feel like outsiders in their homeland. That could provoke social unrest on an island that sends thousands of immigrants to the United States looking for economic opportunities.

Noel, 27, sounds more resigned than bitter when he talks of his situation.

"It takes away your motivation," he says. "When I look ahead to my future, I see a future that is uncertain, limited."

As the hemisphere's poorest nation and one grappling with political unrest so severe that U.N. peacekeepers have been deployed, Haiti has sent workers to the Dominican Republic for decades. The migrant flow initially headed for the sugar cane fields but now is also drawn to the island's construction boom and vibrant tourism industry.

No accurate count exists, but nongovernmental organizations estimate there are about 500,000 Haitian immigrants in the country, more than 5 percent of the population. With growth has come a backlash.

The Dominican constitution says anyone born in this country is a citizen except those whose parents are "in transit," or in the country temporarily. Under a new strict interpretation, Dominican officials call anyone without a legal ID card "in transit." Observers say that interpretation would include Haitian immigrants living in the country illegally for decades.

Gloria Amezquita, a coordinator with Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Services in the capital of Santo Domingo, said Dominican registrars have been ordered not to process ID applications if parents cannot produce residency cards. Even more troubling, she said, the government is applying the new policy retroactively and stripping citizenship from some Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Without ID cards, those of Haitian descent can only attend public school through sixth grade. Lacking education and a work permit, they typically are destined for menial jobs. They also are denied public health insurance.

"You are condemning them to this cycle of poverty," Amezquita said.

Noel's mother sells coffee on street corners, but he had dreams of attending college and running a hotel. Instead, he ended up following her path and spent his days selling empanadas on the sidewalk. He now toils as a janitor and maintenance man.

As in many countries, the new get-tough approach on illegal immigrants has proven popular. The National Private Enterprise Council, an influential business organization, unveiled an immigration plan this month that backs the denial of citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.

Marselha Goncalves Margerin, advocacy director for the Washington-based Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, said seeking Haitian citizenship is not feasible for most people born in the Dominican Republic. Besides the legal issues of citizenship, there is a fundamental question of identity, Goncalves Margerin said.

"They play baseball, they speak Spanish, they dance the bachata," she said. "These are Dominicans."

Noel, for example, says he knows almost nothing about Haitian history and can barely speak Creole.

"I think it is just a minority, a fringe, who are racist. The racism comes from above, in the government policies. That is what hurts," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

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