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  • Historical Forgetting and the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal
  • Amelia Hintzen

On September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic ruled on the case of Juliana Dequis Pierre. Pierre was born in 1984 to Haitian migrants, and in 2008, when she attempted to acquire her national identity card, government officials confiscated her birth certificate and informed her that they could not issue her any documents because her last names were Haitian. After a lower court rejected Pierre’s appeal for the return of her birth certificate, the case eventually reached the Constitutional Tribunal, which ruled that Pierre was not a Dominican citizen because her parents were not in the country legally. In addition, the judges gave the electoral commission one year to compile a list of people like Pierre to be excluded from citizenship. The ruling applies to anyone born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian migrant workers after 1929 and could potentially impact hundreds of thousands of Dominicans.

The court’s decision is part of a larger government campaign that over the past decade has made it progressively more difficult for Dominicans of Haitian descent to obtain documentation. As many domestic and international critics have pointed out, these actions violate the human rights of many Haitians and people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, this ruling is unprecedented because it attempts to impose limits on citizenship retroactively. The Tribunal’s decision is a work of dangerous historical revisionism that has no foundation in Dominican legal history and is in violation of the Dominican Constitution.

In its decision, the Constitutional Tribunal acknowledges that Article 8 of the 1929 Constitution established the right of jus soli nationality, or the right of anyone born in Dominican territory to citizenship. However, it emphasizes that the 1929 Constitution, and those since, excluded children born to “diplomats and those in transit.” The judges argue that a 1939 immigration law, which designates temporary laborers and their families as “non-immigrants,” proves that Haitian workers who entered the country to work on sugar plantations and their family members are considered [End Page 108] “in transit” and that, on this basis, their children do not qualify for jus soli citizenship. The 1939 law distinguished between “immigrant” and “non-immigrant” by explaining that “foreigners admitted as immigrants can reside indefinitely in the Republic [and] those non-immigrants will only be granted temporary admission.”1 The Constitutional Tribunal’s argument hinges on the claim that “temporary admission” is synonymous with “in transit.” Therefore, it concludes, children born to Haitian seasonal workers after 1929 are not considered Dominican citizens and should instead apply for Haitian citizenship.

This argument is specious for several reasons. There is no evidence that the framers of the 1929 constitution intended the phrase “in transit” found in Article 8 to apply to migrant sugar laborers. Nor did the Dominican government attempt to employ the article in this way during most of the twentieth century. Despite widespread racism against and abuse of Haitians and their children, government officials have been forced, often begrudgingly, to recognize Haitian Dominicans as citizens and grant them rights as such. In 1967 the Director of Migration wrote to the Secretary of the Armed Forces about a recent detention and planned repatriation of two hundred Haitians. He reminded the secretary that he needed to be careful not to “dismiss the possibility that Haitian nationals qualify to obtain permanent residence in the country for either their activities or for . . . having children born in the country.”2 As we can see from this letter, in 1967 not only were children of Haitians considered citizens, but also those migrants who had children in the country were eligible for permanent residence and had protection against deportation as well. Two years later the Deputy Secretary of Migration wrote to then-President Joaquín Balaguer to complain that “on multiple occasions this department is going to repatriate [a] Haitian who has violated the law of migration but . . . their wife or concubine comes with the children and, in light of this, we are required to revoke the deportation order and order the release of the Haitian.” In the same letter the Deputy Secretary also expressed his worries about...