The Roots of La Sentencia

Rachel Nolan

The Dominican Republic is preparing to deport hundreds of thousands of people to Haiti. What's behind the mass expulsion?

People of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic stand in line to apply for a birth certificate listing them as foreigners. Ezequiel Abiu Lopez / AP

Interview by
Ella Mahony

This week, news broke in the US media that the Dominican Republic is preparing to deport hundreds of thousands of people to Haiti. Most are the children or grandchildren of undocumented Haitian laborers, born in the Dominican Republic and strangers to Haiti. The impending expulsions — expected to begin this past Thursday, but not yet carried out en masse — have inspired condemnation and not a little confusion in the US, where Dominicans have themselves faced racism and harsh immigration policies.

Rachel Nolan, a PhD student in Latin American history at New York University, provides crucial context for these deportations in the May issue of Harper’s magazine. Here Jacobin assistant editor Elizabeth Mahony speaks with Nolan about the legal pretext for the expulsions, the country’s history of anti-Haitian violence, and the US’s role in shaping Dominican immigration policy.

Ella Mahony

What is La Sentencia, and what was the social and political context for this ruling?

Rachel Nolan

Anti-Haitian sentiment waxes and wanes in the Dominican Republic. La Sentencia was the most obvious expression of a recent crest in anti-Haitian feeling there. It was a decision of the Constitutional Tribunal, the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court, on the case of Juliana Deguis Pierre.

Juliana was born in the Dominican Republic to undocumented Haitian parents. The DR had a policy of jus soli, just like the United States. Because Juliana was born in the DR, she was a citizen. But when she went to a government office to request an ID called a cédula, Juliana was turned down because of her Haitian name and face. So she sued the government for discrimination.

The court decided against her and expanded a loophole in Dominican law that denies citizenship to the children of those “in transit.” This legal provision was meant to apply to children of tourists and diplomats, but in September 2013 La Sentencia expanded it to cover the children of all undocumented Haitians. The Sentence was retroactive to 1929 and made an estimated 210,000 people stateless. This is as if the United States took away the citizenship of anyone born to undocumented Dominican parents in the US starting in 1929.

Ella Mahony

You say that La Sentencia made 210,000 people, mostly Dominicans with undocumented Haitian parents, “suddenly stateless.” What does this mean for these people?

Rachel Nolan

As Juliana explained to me, being suddenly stateless means being “paralyzed.” It is hard to do anything in the Dominican Republic without a cédula, or government ID. The stateless there cannot legally work, marry, open a bank account, get a driver’s license, vote, or attend school after eighth grade.

When I was reporting in the DR, one woman told me about her sister who had planned to get married. The sister had heard of La Sentencia, but didn’t fully realize that she was stateless until she applied for a marriage license and was turned down. She can’t get married because she’s a legal non-entity.

Ella Mahony

Greg Grandin recently wrote in the Nation that “what is happening in the Dominican Republic is but one part of the world’s new statelessness.” What is the global political and economic dynamic that brings this phenomenon into being?

Rachel Nolan

There are two kinds of statelessness, voluntary and involuntary. People of Haitian descent in the DR are among the dispossessed, those forced to be stateless. Theirs is a dramatic case, because they were stripped of citizenship suddenly and recently. Another example are the Rohingya of Burma, who have suffered statelessness for much longer. The United Nations estimates that there are about 10 million stateless people around the world.

A newer, much smaller group are the voluntary stateless, usually ultra-rich people who have renounced citizenship to avoid paying taxes. These people often eventually buy citizenship in tax havens like St Kitts, because even the rich can’t afford to entirely forgo the benefits of citizenship. My friend Atossa Abrahamian just finished reporting for a great book exploring this strange phenomenon.

Ella Mahony

What has been the US’s role in shaping Dominican immigration policy?

Rachel Nolan

Most recently, the US has helped to fund and train the Dominican border police, called CESFRONT. Right-wing politicians in the DR cite the US as an example to justify proposals like building a wall along the border between Haiti and the DR.

Dominicans who live along the border pointed out to me that the money would be better spent fixing the International Highway that runs along the border. Some parts of the highway are so rutted that you need a mule to cross. But infrastructure spending doesn’t play as well as anti-immigrant posturing in the capital.

It is also worth remembering that the US invaded the Dominican Republic. Twice. The US occupied the DR first from 1916 to 1924 then from 1965 to 1966. The first time, the US set up bases in the Dominican Republic in which Jim Crow laws were in effect as much as possible in a country that had very different racial hierarchies. US forces had to decide: who was white enough to be white? It would be funny if it weren’t tragic.

Rafael Trujillo, who was the dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until 1961, made the cut despite the fact that he had a Haitian grandmother. Trujillo was trained by US Marines and rose to power during the US occupation. He was obsessed with “whitening” the population of the DR, and ordered El Corte, which is also known as the Parsley Massacre.

In a footnote on the first page of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz writes that Trujillo’s reign was “one of the longest, most damaging U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating U.S.-based dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and argentinos are still appealing).”

Ella Mahony

El Corte — Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians living within the Dominican Republic — was a precursor to this moment. How much of this historical legacy is still alive?

Rachel Nolan

Anti-Haitianism is alive and well. But historical memory of El Corte is not. There are no museums memorializing the slaughter in Dajabón, the border city where the worst killings took place.

On my last day in the DR, I went to a bookstore in the capital, which was empty except for the clerk and an older man in jeans, who introduced himself as a semiotics professor. We started talking about a book on Haitian-Dominican relations, and the professor said that Dominican racism has been strong since the time of Trujillo, “and of course you know about El Corte.”

I was startled. People would talk to me about the massacre if I broached the subject, but seemed reluctant. It was the first time a stranger had mentioned the massacre so casually, as if it were part of the national story known to all, even visitors.

But the clerk was lost. “The murders?” he asked.

The professor explained that no, he meant El Corte: the mass killing of Haitians on the border during the time of Trujillo.

The employee looked confused. “Was it in Haiti?”

“No no no, on our side.”

I asked both if El Corte was taught in schools. Both said no. The employee was clearly still puzzled. He couldn’t wrap his head around a massacre of Haitians on the Dominican side in the 1930s. Brutality aside, what were they doing there in the first place?

Two histories have been wiped out: the history of the massacre, but also the history of peace and intermarriage between Haitians and Dominicans that preceded the massacre. This is not just the passage of time. Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote that “one ‘silences’ a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun.”

The killings are not well-known in the US, either. Unless they have read Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, most people have not heard of the massacre. I sent a draft of my Harper’s story to a well-educated, worldly friend, and in the margins next to a description of the “parsley test” that preceded the massacre she wrote, and I quote, “HOLY SHIT WHAT?!”

Ella Mahony

Where does the popular support for these actions come from? Who are its strongest supporters and why?

Rachel Nolan

The strongest supporters are Dominican nationalist right-wingers. They do not call themselves that. They call themselves patriots. Those who defend La Sentencia and the deportations argue that the Dominican Republic is a sovereign nation that has the right to determine its own immigration policy. Which is understandable coming from a small country that has been invaded so many times.

It is hard to properly translate the resonance of the word “sovereignty” in Latin American countries. But of course that does not give them the right to contravene international law, engage in mass deportations, or strip people of citizenship and then deport them from their own country to a country they’ve never seen before.

This is not theoretical. Amnesty International has already documented thirty cases of Dominicans of Haitian descent who were affected by La Sentencia being expelled to Haiti. And that was in January, when all expulsions and deportations were supposed to be suspended during the Regularization Plan.

But the deadline to register for the Regularization Plan just passed on Wednesday at midnight, so now these deportations — which were illegal — will become legal and proceed in much larger numbers. Wilson Sentimo is another such case.

Ella Mahony

You’ve written that many people of Haitian descent work in the most exploitative sectors, with low wages and grueling work. What effect does racial terror and the threat of deportation have on the prospect for organizing and workers’ rights?

Rachel Nolan

It has an enormously chilling effect on organizing, as I describe in the section of my Harper’s article on Jhonny Rivas. This applies to organizing not just on bateyes and in the agricultural sector, but also on construction work all over the country.

Ella Mahony

What are some of the forces fighting against the deportation and the wider marginalization of Haitians in the Dominican Republic?

Rachel Nolan

Haitians and some Dominicans are working together in the DR to fight deportations and the marginalization of Haitians. After La Sentencia, Dominicans of Haitian descent created a group called, which is a play on the Spanish word for “recognized.” They have loudly protested what they see as the failure of the Regularization Plan.

I wrote about a group called Solidaridad Fronteriza, which works on this issue on the border with Haiti. It has sister organizations in other parts of the country called Centro Bonó and CEFASA. NGOs and international groups have put pressure on the government both in public and behind the scenes. in particular has been in close touch with groups of Dominicans and Dominican-Americans in the United States, who tend to sympathize with the predicament of Haitians and the stateless in the DR for obvious reasons. And an organization called We Are All Dominican is continuing to stage protests, mostly in New York City.