Racism hiding behind the law

August 6, 2015

Amín Pérez and Juan Miguel Pérez explain the roots of anti-Haitian laws in the Dominican Republic.

STATES CREATE--through ideologies that make them defenders of the nation--ghosts in the collective imagination of communities they are supposed to serve. Once these ghosts install themselves as prejudices in popular culture, they become part of the state ideology that governs the ways its subjects, the state's citizens, feel, think and act.

In the Dominican Republic, the story hasn't been any different. Recently, the government has once again used the issue of immigration to exploit an historical discourse through which the governing classes have sought to reaffirm their political, economic and social hegemony in Dominican society.

The most recent wave of state racism began September 23, 2013, when the Tribunal Constitutional, the country's Supreme Court, announced Decision 168/13, which revoked Dominican citizenship from Juliana Deguis.

This young woman was born to Haitian parents in the Dominican Republic 30 years ago. She has never stepped foot on Haitian soil. She lived in Yamasá, a town to the north of Santo Domingo where she carried on a normal life until the day the government refused to provide her with a birth certificate. The decision took away her citizenship, arguing that, at the time of her birth, her parents were in an "irregular" situation or, rather, "in transit" as determined by this same state.

Haitian sugar cane workers in Dominican Republic take a 10-minute break under a truck, the only source of shade
Haitian sugar cane workers in Dominican Republic take a 10-minute break under a truck, the only source of shade

Beyond this individual case, the violence of this decision was such that it was applied to every Dominican citizen born to foreign parents in a similar situation between 1929 and 2007.

Under local and international pressure, this measure was reconsidered by means of a "naturalization" plan in 2014. The objective was to re-examine the situation of these Dominicans who lost their citizenship. But this process became even more complicated when it became entangled with a plan to "regularize" undocumented immigrant workers.

Combining these two legally distinct processes, the Dominican state's discriminatory intent directed at a specific population (Haitian parents and their Dominican children). In the same way, the Haitian government exposed its abandonment of and indifference to its emigrant citizens in failing to represent them or to provide them documentation for their regularization in the Dominican Republic.

Both cases show the push and pull of government action toward the most vulnerable country men and women. On the one hand, the Haitian state's disinterest in a population that felt obligated to leave in search of better living conditions. On the other hand, the Dominican state looking not just to get rid of hundreds of thousands of immigrants used merely as manual labors, but also to set their children on the same temporary and precarious path as their parents.

What is the balance sheet after all of these measures? More than 53,000 Dominicans were denied their citizenship, with only 8,755 being able to complete the re-naturalization process. If today the government were to announce the restitution of citizenship to the rest of the population in question, this would still be murky: if the restitution were to be effective, how would naturalization help the population that is already defined as Dominican? What is the value of this nationality, inscribed in a specific civil registry, to the rest of the population, defining Dominican "qualities" in such a way?

On the other hand, of the more than 500,000 Haitian workers enumerated by the census, only 288,000 have been able to register under the regularization plan, without any idea of their legal fate since only 1.6 percent of registered immigrants can provide the documentation needed to regularize their status. Waiting for a clear decision from the government, the results are, in fact, already in: thousands of immigrants and Dominicans are subject to expulsion at any time. On top of the de facto segregation that denied access to these national and immigrant populations' ability to schools, work, housing or medical care, there is now an added legal segregation, i.e., the threat of expulsion from one's own land.

WHO ARE these people who don't deserve to live in the Dominican Republic or to be citizens of the country? Primarily they are the children of a wave of Haitian immigration that began arriving a century ago to work on the large sugar cane plantations and later in the agricultural and construction sectors.

For decades, the employers--along with the state and more recently the private sector--have regulated these migrations, assigning them a "transitory" status that preserved precarious work conditions and the denial of social services to these migrants.

To carry out such a policy of marginalization without being suspected of discrimination, the Tribunal justices hid behind the letter of the law. The issue is, however, an eminently political one since the law is openly directed at a population identified by its ethnic origin. Like other measures that bring to mind the worst moments of our contemporary history, this one is based on the ideals and interests of a ruling class that has not stopped agitating about the supposed threat from Haitians to the "Dominican national character."

The rise to power of the Party of Dominican Liberation [the current, neoliberal ruling party] and its decision to ally itself with a notably anti-Haitian conservative party and with the economic elites who are beholden to the sugar industry, has brought back politics that were considered taboo.

These ideas come from the period of independence (1844), won from the occupying Haitians, and not from the Spanish empire like the majority of the Latin American republics. Since this time, the leaders of the extreme right of the country have frequently used the Haitian question to construct a nationalist narrative based on crude opposites: Spanish/creole, Catholicism/voodoo, or the most polarizing of all, that of the blacks (Haitians) and Dominicans regardless of their racial mix.

Using these criteria to define legal and social inclusion in the nation is one way of imposing the hegemony of a political minority and making every person who doesn't fit its norms disappear from the national picture. This discourse of "national interest" fronts for a reappearing state racism that is legitimizing the social and physical exclusion of a majority black population relegated to the lowest strata in labor forces (for example, day laborers and manual laborers).

It's not by chance that those that are targeted for attacks on their social rights (working conditions, salary, education, health) are suddenly proclaimed illegitimate in the country. In creating social tensions seeking to differentiate "them" from "us," this institutional violence is one way of concealing the rollback of social rights for all Dominicans.

Despite multiple mobilizations against these measures, the condemnations of human rights violations from governments and the international press, the Dominican state has affirmed that its decision is irrevocable.

State racism hiding behind the letter of the law has just erased the history of a people: that of a black, immigrant working class and its Dominican children. This is a political issue that can only be resolved in the political arena. When human dignity is at stake, neither the laws nor the institutions are inviolable.

Translation by Hannah Fleury. First published in Spanish in 80 grados, an online political and cultural affairs magazine based in Puerto Rico.

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