Born Dominican, but Locked Out by Haitian Roots and Lack of ID

Yvroze Alphonse, 33, and her children at their home in Batey Naranjo, an impoverished community of sugar cane workers of primarily Haitian descent, on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. Ms. Alphonse moved to the Dominican Republic illegally, but registered herself and her children in the government's naturalization program. MERIDITH KOHUT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Yvroze Alphonse, 33, and her children at their home in Batey Naranjo, an impoverished community of sugar cane workers of primarily Haitian descent, on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. Ms. Alphonse moved to the Dominican Republic illegally, but registered herself and her children in the government’s naturalization program.

By SANDRA E. GARCIA.  OCTOBER 29, 2015  SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — On any given weekday morning, children in the capital pile one behind the other on motoconchos, or motorcycle taxis, their pale-blue school uniforms zipping by buses, trucks and cars, ponytails blowing in the wind.

Ruben Chery, 33, a barber in a neighborhood called Little Haiti, remembers going to public school like other Dominican-born children. He remembers the excitement of waking up and heading out to class. But most of all, like a sharp slap, he remembers the bitter moment when his seventh-grade teacher told him that he could not continue his education, that he would never move on to high school.

“I didn’t have any identifying documents; I could not finish my high school education,” Mr. Chery said. “I am stuck in the seventh grade forever.”

For years, going to high school in the Dominican Republic required proof of citizenship, an obstacle that tens of thousands of people of Haitian descent — even many who were born here, like Mr. Chery — have struggled their entire lives to overcome and even passed on to their children.

Obtaining that proof can be nearly impossible, the legacy of a bureaucracy that academics say has long sought to block the children of Haitian migrants from gaining an official foothold in the country.

Haitian migrants have had trouble getting birth certificates for the children they have had in this country for generations. Then, when those Dominican-born children grow old enough to have families of their own, they have no documentation to prove their nationality, either.

“This perpetuates the cycle of a second-class population or lower-class population in the country,” said B. Shaw Drake, a co-author of a book called “Left Behind: How Statelessness in the Dominican Republic Limits Children’s Access to Education.”

By 2012, there were 48,000 students in the Dominican Republic’s education system at risk of not being able to attend high school because they lacked the proper identification, Mr. Drake estimates.

Haitians deported from the Dominican Republic were moved across the border by Dominican officials in Malpasse on Tuesday. The nation is deporting residents with no official papers.
Things are supposed to be different now.

The Ministry of Education says it sent memos in 2013 to all regional education directors, district directors and directors of education centers instructing them to allow all elementary and secondary school students to be enrolled, whether the children had identifying documents or not.

“Now we can assign a unique number to the students,” said Víctor Sánchez, vice minister of education. “With this number, we have a system and we can track the students allowing them to progress with their education.”

But Wade McMullen, who has studied these issues as managing attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and has represented Dominicans affected by the denationalization policies, does not think that the issue can be solved by simply sending a memo.

Haitians outside the Ministry of Interior and Police waited to register with the Dominican government in Santo Domingo in June. Hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent faced the risk of deportation as a deadline for enforcement of a new immigration law approached.
“What oftentimes happens is that the government will put out a memo, but won’t follow up to see if it is implemented,” Mr. McMullen said. “A memo is a great start, but it is not sufficient; they are going to need enforcement of that memo to counteract the systematic discrimination that has been entrenched in the Dominican Republic.”

Mr. Chery now worries whether his own daughter will hit the same roadblocks he did. His parents — Elviro Chery and Zoraida Felix — arrived in the Dominican Republic in 1960 as migrant workers in the sugar cane fields.

“They worked like slaves in the cane fields, and they would never be asked to identify themselves,” he said. “They were just told to cut sugar cane and live near the fields if they pleased, and that’s what they did.”

“My mother couldn’t get me a birth certificate,” he added. “She could never register herself because she was undocumented.”

Mr. Chery’s father died in 2002, and his mother in 2005. This made it even harder for Mr. Chery to be able to get identifying documents and ensure that the following generation of Cherys did not have to deal with the same pitfalls.

Mr. Chery’s daughter Rubencia is now in the second grade.

“I made a deal with her teacher,” said Mr. Chery, who asked her teacher to let her into the first-grade class even though she is 9. “She started a little late.”

Under the new policy, Rubencia is supposed to be able to attend high school, but would not be able to go on to higher education because those institutions still require identifying documents to enroll. “She will be limited because she does not have an identity,” Mr. Chery said.

“There is an enormous class of people that have yet to receive a higher education,” Mr. McMullen said. “What we have is a proposed solution from the government saying that this law washes their hand of any responsibility.”

Mr. Chery still wants to study somehow and have a profession. Besides the need for a solid income, he said, he also feels “inferior, I feel insecure, invalid. I do not feel like I am the person I want to be.”

Mr. Chery saw the long lines of Haitian immigrants and Dominican-born Haitians waiting to register with the government a few months ago. Anyone who did not register, the government warned, could be thrown out of the country.

The deadline passed in June, and according to the government, 40,000 Haitians decided to leave the country on their own rather than face the upheaval of a sudden deportation and the loss of their belongings in the process.

The Dominican Republic said it has begun deporting undocumented people who remain and are not registered. About 4,650 people have been expelled so far, according to the government.

“There will be no witch hunts,” said Washington Gonzalez, the vice minister of the interior and the police. “We want a normal process.”

Tens of thousands of people registered with the government in the hope of staying in the country, the government said. Mr. Chery was not one of them. With no documentation to show, he decided it was pointless.

“The government won’t recognize me as a citizen,” he said.

The government estimates that 100,000 immigrants did not register. But even people who think their papers are neatly in order can run into snags that upend their lives.

Formena Michel, 56, said she went to get her Dominican identity card when she was 14 years old, using her birth certificate as proof. The clerk gave her an identity card, Ms. Michel said, but took the birth certificate and never returned it.

Ms. Michel moved on with her life. She married and had 10 children, managing to get birth certificates for all of them. Her children were the first in her family to complete high school.

Yet identity questions still arise. Ms. Michel said her youngest son recently applied for a passport to visit Spain but was denied. The government claimed his mother was Haitian, so he was unable to receive a Dominican passport.

“They say they can’t find me in the registry, not in any book or any list,” said Ms. Michel, a domestic worker.

The government informed Ms. Michel that the identity card she was using was not her own, but belonged to someone else instead. Worried about being deported, she is attending hearings to try to prove it is hers.

Situations like this happen often because “local workers grow up in a society deep in anti-Haitian sentiment, and they take the law into their own hands,” Mr. McMullen said, preventing Haitian migrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent from rights granted to them by Dominican laws.

For now, Mr. Chery is not particularly worried about the possible threat of deportation. His main concern is that his daughter gets an education.

“I want her to have a career,” he said.


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