The Worst of US Immigration Policy Is Reflected In the Dominican Republic

Dark-skinned and nappy-headed, I fit the profile of a person of Haitian descent. Since the 1990s, the Dominican state has made a habit of denying papers to descendants of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic (and even people who look Haitian). And in a now-infamous rulinghanded down in September 2013, the Dominican Constitutional Tribunal left hundreds of thousands of people – many of them born in the DR – effectively stateless.


Despite this, I wasn’t too concerned when I rode the subway to the Dominican Consulate in New York City to renew my passport 16 months ago. I’d completed this routine errand several times before without incident. On this visit, my lack of a cédula, the national identification card for Dominican citizens, became a problem. Having lived in the US almost my whole life, I’d never possessed or needed a cédula. I admitted as much to the consular officer, and prepared myself to be chastised in bureaucratese. Instead he looked me in the eye and asked: “Are you Haitian?”

At that moment I realized just how much trouble not having that flimsy card might cause me. 

Behind the officer’s question I sensed a threat: if he declined to renew my passport on the grounds that I was “Haitian”, I would be deprived of the documentation I needed to prove my nationality. After being undocumented for much of my childhood in the US, I’d been granted F-1 student visa status to pursue my doctoral studies at Stanford. If the DR rejected my passport renewal request, I’d be cast into an immigration limbo.

Dominican birth certificate in hand, I remonstrated with the officer. An hour and a half later, I walked out of the embassy with my new passport. My patria’s determination to isolate and remove Haitians through the refinements of immigration policy had not harmed me. I was lucky. 

Back home, many are not. In the year since my consular visit, the Dominican government’s enforcement of the ruling and the new “Regularization Plan” implemented in its wake has created nightmares worthy of Kafka. Those suspected of being “Haitian” and who cannot produce satisfactory evidence of two Dominican-born parents are now subject to deportation unless they succeed in regularizing their status with the Dominican authorities. To do so, many applicants must obtain documentation from both the Dominican and Haitian governments. While difficult and costly for actual Haitian migrants, this undertaking is near-impossible for Dominican-born applicants with no connections to Haiti. No surprise, then, that only 4,600 of the approximately 290,000 men, women and children who have registered to begin the process of obtaining residence permits from the Dominican Interior Ministry had received them by this year’s June 17 deadline.

This immigration policy has enjoyed broad support from the Dominican public and from the country’s most prominent politicians. Former president of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández recently penned an op-ed that dismissed concerns voiced in American and European media outlets as “an effort to degrade and smear us before the international community, something that we as a generous and caring people do not deserve.” 

Directly attacking international reporting of the plan, op-eds in other national publications make much fuss about the differences between Haitians and Dominicans but conveniently downplay or dismiss the role of anti-Haitianism and racism in the reification of these “differences.” These same op-eds also show no awareness of the long history of withholding documentation in order to keep marginalized people excluded – by making their daily lives ever more precarious, their bodies ever more vulnerable to the state’s violence.

The predicament of hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Haitian descendants in my home country resonates with me because I know what it is like to be black and undocumented: to be rendered doubly marginal. In my forthcoming memoir, I’ve tried to show how America’s inflexible and punitive immigration policies result in absurd and unjust outcomes.

It has been dismaying to see the Dominican government adopt a similar approach to immigration while making use of American border-policing expertise. It has been equally dismaying to see the Dominican government take up another American practice: lobbying. In the aftermath of the ruling, the Dominican government enlisted the services of the Washington law firm Steptoe and Johnson LLP for the purposes of “consolidating and strengthening the image of the Dominican State in the eyes of the international public opinion [sic] regarding the Decision.” In the carefully curated talking points being circulated to members of Congress, the Dominican government has sought to minimize the extent of the dislocations and upheavalsinflicted on immigrants and descendants of immigrants through its policies.

May this effort at spin fail.

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