Though they’ve been neighbors since the Dominican Independence War in 1844, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have kept a wary eye on one another for centuries. While Haitians did launch the first and only successful slave revolt, the country went on to suffer from endemic poverty and chaos, while the Dominican Republic has been able to develop much greater wealth and stability.
Haitian migrants frequently cross the border in search of low-paid and low-skilled work. An estimated 90 percent of the 500,000 immigrants in the Dominican Republic are of Haitian descent. And though several Dominican sectors benefit from cheap migrant labor, Haitian migrants aren’t always welcomed with open arms.
Underlying tension between the Dominican government and Haitian migrants boiled over in September 2013, when the Dominican Republic’s highest court ruled that children of undocumented Haitian immigrants born after 1929—even those born in the country—were no longer Dominican citizens, effectively stripping 210,000 Haitian descendants of their citizenship and rendering them stateless.
The ruling faced an immediate backlash from the international community, and the Dominican government scrambled to create a path to citizenship for the hundreds of thousands of children of migrants whose future had suddenly become unclear. In May 2014, Dominican President Danilo Medina drafted a bill that would allow children born to Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic to become citizens.
Under this law, gaining legal status could be done one of two ways. Individuals could obtain Dominican government identification and show they were included in the civil registry or declare themselves as foreigners, obtain a migratory permit and then wait two years before becoming eligible for naturalization.
After the announcement of the bill, human rights groups were quick to warn that the new law still fell short; only 24,000 migrants would qualify for Dominican Republic citizenship due to the hardship they would face obtaining documents. During the 20th century, many Dominicans of Haitian descent were unable or actively prevented from registering births—making it virtually impossible for children of migrants to show legal identification like a birth certificate.
Those without documents—the majority of those affected by the constitutional ruling—would have to take the second option of declaring themselves foreigners, but without any legal birth registration, it would be nearly impossible for them to declare any other nationality.
All of the warnings about the failures of the path to citizenship are starting to come true. According to the Associated Press, since the application period began on June 2, more than 115,000 migrants have applied for work and residency permits. Of those, however, only 275 applicants have been able to meet the requirements.
The main problem for most applications is acquiring the required documents; for those attempting to get official documents transferred from Haiti, the price is prohibitive, and many migrants work in informal sectors like agriculture or constructing, where documentation is non-existent.
Despite these logistical problems, Interior Minister Ramon Fadul warned that migrants without documentation will face the risk of deportation if they do not go through the application process. The application period ends on May 31, 2015.
The fate of the migrants hanging in the balance, though, is just the latest symptom of the tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In 2002, Human Rights Watch found that 75 percent of Dominicans believed that all Haitians should be deported—despite the fact that the local sugar and tourism industries depend on Haitian labor to thrive.
Although both nationalities are made of up descendants of African slaves, many Dominicans perceive Haitians as “blacker” than they are, a belief that began in the late 18th century when Spanish slaveholders, occupying what is the present-day Dominican Republic, began a campaign of anti-blackness to reject the successful Haitian slave revolt.
Haitians have been treated as a type of underclass in Dominican society for centuries—suffering a range of ills from being blamed for a litany of economic problems to a violent massacre led by Rafael Trujillo in 1937 that killed 20,000 Haitians.
The citizenship law was just the latest manifestation of antihaitianismo; and although the Dominican government acted quickly to defuse the situation and appease the Haitian migrant community, the fact that the law is barely succeeding in restoring citizenship to hundreds of thousands of people is proof that anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic is still very much alive.