In May 2010, two-month-old Rosleidi was rushed to the emergency room, severely ill and having difficulty breathing. Once her condition was stabilized, doctors informed Rosleidi’s worried mother, Roxana, that her daughter had Down syndrome and suffered from a host of congenital health problems that required immediate, complicated, and sustained medical care.
Roxana despaired. She knew that the family health insurance provided by her husband Edilberto’s job, combined with several other government health initiatives, could provide Rosleidi with the medical care she so desperately needed. In order to qualify for coverage under any of these programs, however, Rosleidi needed to possess a valid birth certificate issued by the Dominican Republic civil registry. For months Roxana had tried to get this document from her local registry office in San Pedro de Macorís—her first application was lodged just four days after Rosleidi’s March 5, 2010, birth—but her every request was denied.
Why? As explained to Roxana by local civil registry officials, she and her husband were “Haitians,” a status which meant that her daughter did not have the right to Dominican nationality, and, as a consequence, was not eligible to receive a Dominican birth certificate.
This explanation came as a shock to Roxana, who considered herself to be thoroughly Dominican. Yes, her parents had immigrated to the Dominican Republic from Haiti, but she was born on Dominican territory and had lived her entire life in the San Pedro de Macorís region. Shortly after she was born in 1982, the Dominican government issued her a birth certificate which, in accordance with the laws at the time, recognized her as a Dominican national.
As an adult, she was easily issued a national identity card which likewise recognized her Dominican citizenship. Her husband Edilberto’s life story was similar—he was the child of Haitian migrants who had settled permanently in the Dominican Republic, and he had been recognized as a Dominican citizen his entire life. Their two older children had also easily received birth certificates that identified them as Dominican nationals.
But the Dominican government is now claiming that a 2004 migration law vacates Roxana and Edilberto’s claims to citizenship. That law prohibits children of “nonresidents”—including labor migrants with expired work permits, undocumented migrants, and people otherwise unable to prove their lawful residence in the country—from automatically acquiring Dominican nationality. While only meant to be applied prospectively, the law has been used by the Dominican government to denationalize Dominicans of Haitian descent who were granted Dominican nationality prior to its entry into force.
Such retroactive application runs counter to both national and international law, but this appears to matter little to the Dominican government. Throughout the country, untold numbers of Dominicans of Haitian descent who were once secure in their nationality are experiencing grave problems in accessing the personal identity documents (birth certificate copies, national identity cards, passports) that would prove their citizenship. The privation of such documents by the Dominican government has been accompanied by a severe deterioration in the ability of Dominicans of Haitian descent to enjoy their human rights to political participation, education, freedom of movement, family life, among others.
As evidenced by Rosleidi’s case, the negative effects of this retroactive denationalization policy have reverberated among second- and third-generation Dominicans of Haitian descent. Their parents’ citizenship questioned, thousands of young Dominican children of Haitian descent have been made stateless by the government’s refusal to register their birth or issue them birth certificates. Forced to pay the price for their grandparents’ migration status (something the Inter-American Court of Human Rights already found violate fundamental human rights in its landmark 2005 Yean and Bosico decision), they are officially nameless, nonexistent entities in the eyes of the state, which has condemned them to a life of vulnerability and exclusion in the only country they will ever call home.
Little Rosleidi died on August 13, 2011—never having received the birth certificate to which she was entitled by law, never having had the opportunity to seek the medical care she so desperately needed. Would that she were the only victim of the Dominican Republic’s discriminatory nationality policy, but until the government reverses course and begins to honor its human rights obligations, other children of Haitian descent will continue to suffer.