Dominicans of Haitian Descent Need to Have Their Citizenship Recognized

Thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are forced to live like fugitives because the Dominican government refuses to acknowledge their claims to citizenship. The DR’s racist denaturalization policy is tearing apart families and destroying lives.

Frank David, a Dominican of Haitian descent, holds his expired IDs. (Jaclynn Ashly)

In the summer of 2019, an immigration truck abruptly pulled around a corner in Baoruco Province, in the southwest of the Dominican Republic, striking fear into the heart of Tito Martinez. Crossing the road adjacent to his batey (sugar workers’ town), Martinez had just collected milk from his cattle to bring home to his family. “Moreno!” one of the immigration officials shouted, using a Spanish term that refers to people with dark skin. “Show us your papers!”

This demand for documents terrifies Dominicans of Haitian descent, all of whom were born in the Dominican Republic. Based on the country’s policy of jus soli, or birthright citizenship, Dominicans of Haitian descent should be citizens, but many have been denied their national identity documents. Martinez, one of tens of thousands of such Dominicans deprived of these necessary identity documents, has lived in the torment of statelessness for his entire life.

Before Martinez could respond, immigration officials jumped out of the vehicle and pushed him into the back of the truck. “Let’s go, we’re taking you back to Haiti,” Martinez was told by one of the officials. “I was so scared,” the twenty-five-year-old recounts. “I’ve never been to Haiti. I don’t know anyone in Haiti. I was thinking about what I was going to eat and where I was going to stay. I don’t know anything about Haiti.”

Tito Martinez has never been to Haiti. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Martinez was transported to a military base in the city of Barahona to wait for the immigration bus that would expel him to a foreign country — away from the place he was born and raised. Luckily, since he was detained on a road adjacent to his community in Batey Siete, locals witnessed the event and alerted Martinez’s family, who sought assistance from a local organization. He was detained for about an hour before activists were able to secure his release.

But other Dominicans of Haitian descent are not so lucky. “If they had caught me in another place and no one had seen me, I would be in Haiti right now,” Martinez tells me. There is no official count of how many Dominicans of Haitian descent face expulsion to Haiti each year, but according to local organizations, it is a common occurrence. Dominicans of Haitian descent represent the single largest stateless population in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Expulsion to Haiti is a terrible fate for people whose entire lives are based in the Dominican Republic. Immigration raids are escalating across the country, exacerbating the statelessness crisis in the Dominican Republic. Dominicans of Haitian ancestry continue to be forcibly expatriated to a country they have never even visited.

Depression and Suicide

The statelessness crisis in the Dominican Republic is the result of an accumulation of more than a century’s worth of immigration policies. These draconian measures can be traced back to the Dominican Republic’s once booming sugar industry that relied on cheap labor from Haiti. People of Haitian descent have long faced harsh discrimination in the Dominican Republic, including state-sanctioned massacres in 1937.

The Dominican-born descendants of Haitian immigrants, most of whom arrived in the country decades ago to cut sugarcane on Dominican plantations, all have the constitutional right to Dominican citizenship. More than a decade ago, however, the government began redefining citizenship rights. These changes stipulated that Dominican-born children could only be eligible for citizenship if at least one of their parents could prove legal residence, regardless of how long they have lived in the country.

A far-reaching and systematic process of revoking the citizenship rights of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry ensued. This historical process of citizenship denial culminated in La Sentencia, or “the sentence,” when in 2013 the country’s Constitutional Court ruled to retroactively strip citizenship from about two hundred thousand Dominicans of Haitian descent.

In 2014, following local and international backlash, the Dominican government enacted the naturalization law 169-14, which was touted as a resolution to the widespread turmoil caused by La Sentencia. This legislation separated los afectados, or “the affected,” into two groups: Group A, consisting of Dominicans of Haitian descent whose citizenship was suspended because their birth certificates were deemed questionable, and Group B, which includes Dominican-born individuals who had rights to citizenship but, because their births were not registered, remain without access to identity documents.

Those in Group A, which consists of about sixty thousand people, were to have their suspended documents restored, while the Group B applicants, numbering roughly eight thousand, were forced to declare themselves Haitian nationals, despite being born and raised in the Dominican Republic. The Group B claimants could then register in the National Regularization Plan for Foreigners with Irregular Migration Status (PNRE) and obtain residence permits with an option of completing an undefined naturalization process two years later.

Nearly eight years later, however, less than half of those in Group A have had their documents restored, and no one has been fully naturalized from Group B. A few hundred Group B applicants were granted naturalization through presidential decrees, but they have still not received corroborating documentation. More than four thousand people from Group B were granted residence permits, but many of these have now expired, leaving thousands in a state of limbo.

Many, like Martinez, did not apply to Law 169-14. “I’m not a foreigner,” says Martinez, whose family has lived in the Dominican Republic for at least two generations. “I’m Dominican. I’m not Haitian. So it didn’t make sense for me to apply as a Haitian, because I’m not from Haiti.”

Thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been forced into a state of vulnerability. Without recognition from the government, they risk being rounded up in the increasingly frequent immigration raids against Haitian immigrants in the country. “We are feeling like ghosts in our own country,” says Elena Lorac, cofounder and national coordinator for the movement, which advocates for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Lorac herself had her citizenship suspended for ten years before finally receiving her Dominican cédula, or national identification card, in 2015.

Elena Lorac is the cofounder of an organization that advocates for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent. (Jaclynn Ashly)

According to Lorac, those from Group B and those who did not apply to Law 169-14 are the most vulnerable to expulsions to Haiti. Activists from have to rush to detention centers at least once every three months to try and secure the release of Dominicans of Haitian descent who are arbitrarily detained by immigration, she says. Several of’s own members have faced expulsion to Haiti, which has forced them into paying high bribes to immigration officials to cross back into the Dominican Republic.

Beneco Enecia, director of the Center for Sustainable Development (CEDESO), says that the organization is forced to visit detention centers at least once a week to intervene in cases where Dominicans of Haitian descent have been detained and are facing expulsion. There are also likely many Dominicans of Haitian ancestry whose expulsions are not discovered by any rights group.

Following expulsions, or near expulsions, young Dominicans of Haitian ancestry oftentimes become closed off from their communities and fall into depression. “It affects their school performance, and many develop a severe identity crisis,” Enecia tells me, adding that there have been cases of young Dominicans of Haitian descent committing suicide as a result of depression triggered by arbitrary arrests and threats of expulsions. In addition, CEDESO has documented young people living with HIV/AIDS who have avoided accessing necessary treatment due to their fears of being detained if they go to the hospital.

Over the last several weeks, hundreds of Haitian immigrants have been detained in immigration raids carried out on maternity hospitals throughout the country. “It’s completely unprecedented,” says Bridget Wooding, a migration expert and coordinator of the Santo Domingo–based think tank Caribbean Migration and Development Observatory (Observatorio Migrantes del Caribe, OBMICA). “[They are] going into maternity hospitals, looking under the beds, going into the toilets, taking pregnant women — women who have just given birth, lactating women — and taking their children.”

These unlawful raids are being carried out quickly and “without due process,” Wooding says, making it so that Dominicans of Haitian ancestry who get arbitrarily detained in these raids have much less of a chance of having enough time to call a rights group for aid. Wooding explains:

The speed in which these deportations are being carried out and the little due process that might happen in normal times is being completely thrown out the window, so there is more of a danger for Dominicans of Haitian ancestry who may have difficulty with their papers to be caught up in these raids.

These raids are likely being used as a “distraction tactic” by Dominican president Luis Abinader, Wooding says. Following his appearance in the Pandora Papers, Abinader has attempted to distance himself from accusations of corruption. These tactics also come on the heels of US president Joe Biden’s administration’s widely publicized mistreatment and deportations of Haitians at the country’s southern border. These deportations were infamously documented in a viral photograph that depicted border patrol agents seemingly whipping migrants from horseback.

Dominicans of Haitian descent, meanwhile, are being further pushed to the margins of Dominican society. They are unable to access most jobs or attend university, and they are fearful of leaving their communities. As immigration raids increase across the country, many Haitian Dominicans are sinking into isolation and depression.

“Always Ready to Run”

Martinez used to travel freely around the country, he says. But after his run-in with immigration officials, he rarely leaves Batey Siete. “I feel scared all the time,” he tells me; his voice is soft and quiet. “That experience affected me a lot. I’m afraid to leave the batey because they might stop me and take me to Haiti. And I don’t know what will happen to me if they send me there. So it’s better not to leave the batey at all.”

However, Martinez still has to periodically cross the road outside his batey when he needs to milk his cows. “I’m very, very careful. If I see anything that even resembles an immigration bus, I immediately panic and start running.” he says. “I feel like I can be deported at any moment. I’m always on edge and ready to run.” Martinez tells me he knows two other Dominicans of Haitian ancestry that similarly faced expulsions — one of whom had a Dominican cédula and the other a residence permit.

After he was unable to access his Dominican birth certificate, Moises Exalus opted to declare himself a Haitian national. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Moises Exalus, twenty, applied for and received a residence permit following the passage of Law 169-14. Exalus’s birth was registered by his mother, who is from Haiti. But the Junta Central Electoral, the Central Electoral Board, which oversees civil registries, rejected his request to access his birth certificate, which is needed to engage in all civil transactions in the county. Exalus opted to declare himself a Haitian national and apply as part of Group B.

His permit, however, expired in 2018. On Exalus’s residence permit, “Haiti” is written as his nationality. He now has essentially the same rights as a Haitian immigrant who overstayed his visa. Since the expiration of his permit, he has faced expulsion to Haiti twice.

The first time was in 2019. He was riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, on his way to the city of Tamayo, located in Baoruco Province. Encountering police along the way, Exalus and his friend were stopped and asked for their documentation. His friend, who is also Dominican of Haitian ancestry, showed the police his Dominican cédula. Exalus presented his expired residence permit.

“They grabbed me and started pulling me onto the [police] truck,” recounts Exalus, who has a four-year-old daughter. “I tried to explain to them that I am Dominican and I’m from the Dominican Republic. They wouldn’t listen to me. They just told me: ‘You’re not Dominican. You’re a damn Haitian, and we’re taking you back to your country.’”

Exalus’s residence permit expired in 2018. (Jaclynn Ashly)

“I tried to explain to them our situation,” he says. “But they kept saying, ‘If you’re Dominican, why does your ID say you’re from Haiti?’” He was detained around 2 p.m. and transported to an army base in the Dajabón region, which borders Haiti. His friend rushed to inform Exalus’s family. Enecia was able to secure Exalus’s release from immigration the following morning, right before he was to be expelled across the border.

“I was really worried that I would be deported,” Exalus says, sitting outside his home in Batey Nuevo. “I was thinking that maybe I wouldn’t see my daughter or my family again. I also kept thinking about whether I’d be able to finish my schooling or if I’d miss my exams.”

The second time was in 2020. He was picked up by immigration while en route to an agricultural job on someone’s small farm and was transported to the military base in Barahona. Fortunately, seven hours later, CEDESO was once again able to get him out of detention.

“None of this is right,” Exalus tells me, looking down and fidgeting with his hands.

I was born here, and I should have citizenship. My life is frozen, and that’s not fair. I want to do many things with my life, but it feels like I can’t do anything. It makes me feel embarrassed that I’m not treated the same way as my friends that have Dominican cédulas. I don’t have the same rights as other people.

“I feel really afraid walking around with this ID,” he adds, holding his expired residence permit between his fingers. “But I need to go out and find work to take care of my daughter. Being deported is the worst nightmare for all of us. So I’m always feeling anxious. I feel like I’d rather go to another country and become a refugee. But I can’t even leave this island because I don’t have the documentation to board a plane.”

“The Government Has Stolen My Life”

For twenty-seven-year-old Wilkin Catalina, the nightmare of deportation became a reality. Catalina’s mother was able to procure documentation attesting to his birth from the hospital. However, his mother, who is from Haiti, was undocumented at the time of Catalina’s birth, which prevented her from registering him with the civil registry. The hospital document was destroyed in 1988 when Hurricane George caused widespread destruction across the Caribbean island.

Catalina is a Group B applicant. More than seven years later, however, he has still not received a residence permit. The only documentation he has is a piece of paper confirming that he applied under Law 169-14. This paper is supposed to prevent his expulsion from the country.

But in 2019, Catalina, a father of two small children, was on his way to a construction job in La Romana, about an hour drive from his batey in El Seibo. The majority of the passengers on the bus were of Haitian descent. It was stopped by immigration officials.

When I ask Catalina if Dominican immigration usually targets buses with majority black passengers, he throws his head back and releases a loud chuckle. “Of course,” he responds. “They stopped us because we were all black. In this country, if you’re white, you don’t have any problems. If you’re black, you will have every problem. It is much better not to be born black here.”

Wilkin Catalina was deported in 2019. (Jaclynn Ashly)

He recounts a familiar scene: immigration officials boarded the bus and demanded that all the “morenos” show their documentation. “I gave them the paper I have, and they took it and checked it in the system,” Catalina remembers. “They said that they couldn’t find me.”

Catalina was then detained and led onto an immigration bus with more than fifty other people, all of whom were of Haitian descent. Four of them were Dominicans who were in the exact same predicament as Catalina. They were taken to an immigration detention center in Bajos de Haina, a port city close to the capital, Santo Domingo, where Catalina stayed for one day and one night.

He was placed in a small cell with about 150 other people, he says. There was not enough room for everyone to sit down, so they had to take turns, rotating every two hours. “It was horrible. I have never experienced something like that,” Catalina tells me, shaking his head.

We were standing shoulder to shoulder. It was so hot, and there was no air coming inside the cell. I was very hungry and thirsty. The food they gave us was spoiled, and the water was contaminated and making everyone sick.

Early the next morning, Catalina and the rest of the detainees were ushered onto a bus, and after a few hours, they arrived in Elias Peña, located along the border with Haiti. A Haitian official came and led the detainees across the border into Haiti on foot. “I was feeling really bad,” Catalina recounts. “I felt like I wanted to cry. I’m not from Haiti, and I’ve never been there.”

Catalina’s wife was pregnant at the time with his daughter, who is now two years old. “I wasn’t thinking much about myself,” he says. “I was more concerned about not being there for my daughter’s birth, because I thought it would be hard to return home.”

But he was only in Haiti for a half hour before meeting a Haitian man who knew a route that could circumvent Dominican immigration and bring him back to Elias Peña. According to Catalina, he was accompanied by seven other Dominicans of Haitian descent who had been expelled. They walked through the forest for about a half hour to get across the border.

Throughout this ordeal, he did not inform his wife, twenty-one-year-old Marialis, because he did not want to worry her, he says. When Marialis found out, she was shocked. “I never thought he would get deported,” she tells me, cradling her daughter in her lap at their small two-room home, made from wood and tin sheets, in El Seibo. “I was very scared because I didn’t know where he was. Now it worries me a lot every time he leaves the house. I call his phone constantly to make sure he’s okay.”

Catalina with his wife, Marialis, and their two-year-old daughter. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Marialis tells me that since the uptick in immigration raids and deportations over the last several weeks, she is terrified of her husband being expelled. Not having access to identity documents has already limited most work opportunities for Catalina. After his expulsion to Haiti, these opportunities have shrunk even more.

“I can’t work with anyone unless I know them because of my documentation issues,” Catalina explains. “And now I’m too scared to go outside El Seibo to look for work. I’m afraid to go through that experience again. Or maybe next time I won’t be so lucky, and I won’t see my family again.”

“I can’t do anything. I’ve been waiting for almost eight years now, and I haven’t gotten any response [from the government],” he says. “I’m scared I will be stuck like this forever. And as far as I can see, this law [169-14] is not a solution. I’m worried that if I keep waiting on the government, time will keep passing. Then I will be old and wrinkly, and I will still be in this same situation.”

“I feel like the government has stolen my life from me,” he continues. “My life is just frozen. I can’t do anything. When I think about all of this, I get really angry. I feel like crying. It makes my heart feel a lot of pain, because I am from here, but the government doesn’t want to recognize me.”

Racist and Classist Deportations

Even Dominicans of Haitian ancestry that have active and valid identity documents are not safe from expulsion. Frank David, twenty-five, was expelled to Haiti in January 2019, even though his residence permit and cédula for noncitizens, which he received through Law 169-14, were still active.

He was on his way to Santo Domingo when a group of immigration officers boarded the bus and asked the “morenos” for their identity documents. “When I showed them my ID, they told me that the ID I have is not good anymore and that it was time for me to go back to Haiti,” says David, who is from Bombita, a batey in Barahona. “I told them that I’m Dominican, but they didn’t believe me.”

Frank David was expelled to Haiti even though his residence permit and cédula were still active. (Jaclynn Ashly)

He was led to a police vehicle and taken to the army base in Barahona, where he stayed for eight hours on an immigration bus with about seventy-five other people — all of whom were migrants from Haiti. “They treated me very badly, and they did not offer me any food or water,” David tells me. “I was feeling so bad. Many people were crying — women and men.” He recounts seeing a hysterical Haitian mother in her mid-twenties who was detained by police when she left her newborn to quickly purchase an item at a shop outside her house.

David, along with dozens of others, was then driven to the border and expelled to Haiti, where he stayed for three days. Before the expulsion, David had never been to Haiti, nor met his extended family there. Knowing only his Haitian grandmother’s name, he luckily found a man near the border who was able to help him track down his family’s home in the Haitian town of Thomazeau.

“I didn’t leave the house for three days. I felt very scared,” David says. David’s brother was able to get in touch with CEDESO, which then assisted David in getting back to the Dominican side of the border. Typically, this process includes exorbitant bribes to Dominican immigration officials. “This ID they gave me is useless,” David tells me, frustratingly waving his expired permit back and forth in his hands.

“I feel like I’m in a worse situation than I was in before,” David says.

Now I have this ID that says I’m Haitian. I can’t even argue with immigration because the government gave me an ID that says I’m from Haiti. And even the Haitian government doesn’t recognize this document. If I could just get any kind of passport, I would leave this country tomorrow.

Both his residence permit and his cédula are now expired. It will cost 4,000 Dominican pesos (about $70) to renew his cédula, and he must pay 1,000 pesos (about $17) for each month he is late in renewing it. David is unemployed, and his family cannot afford the renewal fees. “I don’t feel safe in this country,” David explains.

Now that my ID has expired, I feel even more insecure. Everything about me comes from the Dominican Republic. I was born here and grew up here. All my culture is from here. But this country is strangling me and making it so I can’t progress in my life.

“And it’s not just because I’m black,” he adds. “It’s also because I’m poor. They wouldn’t have deported me if I had money to bribe immigration. If I was rich and arrived in this country yesterday, I would have more rights than I do now, having been born and raised in this country.”

David tells me he does not have plans to get married or start a family because of his documentation issues — a common sentiment among Dominicans of Haitian descent. “I don’t want a family, because I don’t want to pass these problems I have onto other people,” he says. “My child would be a stranger in his own country. Who would want a life like that?”

“Governments are supposed to help their people to have better lives,” he adds. “But in the Dominican Republic, our government holds us back. We’re worse off because we were born here. It is a curse to be born in the Dominican Republic. The moment I get a passport, I’m leaving this country behind me.”

“Even a Cédula Doesn’t Protect You”

Yohanson Bettrán Petion, twenty-four, was not affected by the erosion of citizenship rights for Dominicans of Haitian descent. His mother came to the Dominican Republic when she was a small child, accompanying her parents, who migrated here to cut sugarcane. His father is a Dominican with Haitian ancestry. He has always had free access to his birth certificate at the civil registry and has always been considered a Dominican citizen. However, it wasn’t until 2020 that he received his Dominican cédula — a common experience for all Dominicans who rely on their birth certificates and do not receive their cédulas until their adult years.

In 2017, however, he and his family were detained by immigration. “I was getting off the bus with my mom and two sisters,” he tells me from his home in Los Robles, another batey in Barahona. “The immigration officers immediately came up to us and said, ‘Papellas, papellas’ [papers, papers].” His mother, forty-six-year-old Odett, showed them her Haitian passport, and the officers quickly grabbed Petion.

“I told them to take their hands off me, and that I’m Dominican. I told them: ‘Let’s go to the [civil registry office] right now, and I’ll show you my birth certificate.’ But they wouldn’t listen to me. My mom took out her purse and started hitting the officers with her bag when they were pulling me into the police vehicle.”

He and his mother exchange glances and break out into laughter.

“I wasn’t about to let them take my child to Haiti,” Odett quips. Petion, Odett, and his two sisters were detained in a police truck, which drove around Barahona detaining anyone who looked like they could be of Haitian ancestry, Petion says. “They wouldn’t even ask people for their documents,” he recounts. “They just grabbed anyone who was black and threw them in the back of the truck.”

Yohanson Bettrán Petion and his mother, Odett, were detained by immigration in 2017, along with his two sisters. (Jaclynn Ashly)

Petion says he witnessed at least seventeen people being detained by the police. The officers were referring to the detainees as “morenos diablos,” or “damn blacks,” he says. They were then taken to the army base in Barahona, where police tied the detainees together with plastic handcuffs. Petion says there were about twenty-two people cuffed together, awaiting the immigration bus that would transport them to Haiti. At least six of the detainees were Dominicans of Haitian ancestry.

Petion and his family were cuffed together, standing in the yard of the army base, for about three hours before his mother was able to convince someone to allow her a phone call. She called CEDESO for assistance. Petion says all the Dominicans of Haitian ancestry were released before the immigration bus arrived.

“I wasn’t scared,” Petion tells me.

I just felt really angry. I’m Dominican, and no one can tell me that I belong in Haiti. But it infuriates me, because I know people from Haiti who have lighter skin than me, and they never get stopped by the police. But I’m Dominican, and I get arrested just because my skin is darker.

Odett says she experienced a nervous breakdown following the incident. “I was so worried about my children being deported to Haiti. They don’t know anything about that place,” she tells me, nervously pulling and blowing smoke from a cigarette into the air. “It was very hard for me to sleep after that. I was terrified every time they left the house. I was scared the police might catch them, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that nightmare happening again.”

Petion, meanwhile, says he is not worried. “I feel a lot of racism here from other Dominicans,” he says.

When you’re a bit darker than them, they will always call you “Haitian.” They use it as an insult, but I don’t see it like that. It doesn’t bother me. When they speak down to me, it just motivates me to be even better. Haitian people are the ones who built this country and do all the hard work for this country, and the Dominican government should respect them for that.

Lorac tells me that even though she has now received her national cédula and her citizenship has been restored, she still does not feel safe. “Even this cédula does not protect you. I still feel like I could be deported at any moment. You can be expelled from this country just based on the way you look,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter what documents you have. If you don’t have those documents with you at the moment you run into immigration, they will detain you. So Dominicans of Haitian descent must constantly have their documentation on them,” she explains. “If we make the mistake of forgetting it one day, we could be detained or expelled from the country. We are living in constant fear of being expelled to a foreign country.”

“We are treated as criminals just by the mere fact of being born in the Dominican Republic,” Lorac says. “You really have to become numb to everything around you to survive here, because if you react to this discrimination, you will end up losing your mind.”