Dominican Republic’s New Naturalization Law Falls Short

NEW YORK—A new citizenship law adopted last month in the Dominican Republic fails to fully remedy the damaging consequences of a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal on the legal status of Dominicans of Haitian descent, the Open Society Justice Initiative said today.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, said:

“Despite its partial corrections of some of the worst aspects of the judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal, the new law supplants citizenship on the basis of place of birth, with citizenship by state fiat. Such a system will create and enshrine statelessness and leave Dominican law in violation of the government’s international human rights obligations.”

The tribunal’s ruling, delivered in September, retroactively changed the meaning of Dominican constitutional law to convey citizenship on the basis of parents’ immigration status, instead of the basis of birth in the territory of the Dominican Republic. If implemented as is, the ruling would denationalize thousands of Dominicans born to migrant parents since independence in 1929; the majority of those affected would be Dominicans of Haitian descent.

The new Ley de Régimen Especial y Naturalización 169-14 helpfully mitigates some of the most egregious consequences of the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling by recognizing as citizens those who possess registration of their births between 1929 and 2007 (a period when the Dominican Constitution granted citizenship to all children of residents). This will significantly reduce the numbers at risk of losing citizenship.

However, the new Law’s recognition of citizenship is based not on the fact of birth itself on Dominican territory, but rather on whether a birth was officially registered at the time. This creates continuing legal uncertainties:

  • Firstly, many Dominicans of Haitian descent, particularly those living in poverty, were either unable or actively prevented from registering births during the 1929-2007 period. As a result, they will still lose Dominican citizenship, and may be rendered stateless.
  • Secondly, the law lets stand the doctrine articulated by the Constitutional Tribunal that birth registration during the 1929-2007 period only bestows citizenship if the parents had formal status as migrants. However, much of the migration of laborers and their families from Haiti during the 20th century was informal. As a result, even individuals who were registered as Dominican citizens at birth may be vulnerable to denationalization at a future date because of the status of their parents, again leaving them stateless.
  • Thirdly, birth certificates found to have been issued as the result of fraud, impersonation or misrepresentation will be excluded from recognition of validity. The law leaves unclear how such determinations will be conducted; it should guarantee an independent judicial process. In many cases, invalidating registration will also leave individuals stateless.

The government asserts that the new law will also establish a route to citizenship for anyone whose birth in the 1929-2007 period was not registered with the authorities—a majority of those affected by the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision. This process requires them to register first as foreigners, to obtain a migratory permit, and then be resident for an additional two years before being eligible for naturalization. This poses several additional problems:

  • The process forces individuals who were legally Dominican to declare themselves to be foreigners, in the hope of eventually obtaining citizenship again.
  • These individuals are being penalized for the failure of the state, which is responsible for birth registration. In the Dominican Republic there is also a well-documented history of discrimination by officials against people of Haitian descent, which has historically made it difficult for parents to register births.
  • If individuals born and resident in the Dominican Republic do not have registration of their birth, it is virtually impossible for them to claim any other nationality. In requiring them to register as foreigners, the law will create a stateless population, supposedly pending their naturalization after two years. However, their naturalization is not guaranteed, and anyone denied naturalization will remain stateless.

The new law also disregards specific recommendations made by the Inter-American Commission during a visit to the Dominican Republic in December last year, on how to bring the country in line with its international obligations. Notably, the Commission emphasized that any measures adopted should guarantee the right to nationality to those who already had this right under previous constitutions. The Commission was also clear that people who were denationalized cannot be required to register as foreigners in order to secure recognition of their citizenship, and that the measures to remedy must be general and automatic, and cannot be discretionary or implemented in a discriminatory fashion.