Student Journal: summer dispatches from the field The Dominican Republic fighting for the right to go to school
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The Dispatches

1- Amid the swirl of passionate conversation, and the rhythm of merengue and bachata

2 - To be dark-skinned in the Dominican Republic is to live under suspicion of being Haitian

3 - Forced expulsions of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent

4 - Humberto's 'disappeared' family and Enron in the Dominican Republic

5 - Life in the batey communities where Rosa seeks to buy a mother

6 - Meeting Daniela, the catalyst for this case — and reaching an understanding about the country




Grocery store
Grocery store in Batey Matamamon

Midnight raids, bus rides to the border, and families ripped apart: what it means to be of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.

SANTO DOMINGO, THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — Imagine it's 2:30 in the morning. You and your family are at home, in bed. You're sleeping soundly after a back-breaking day of work, perhaps in the sugar cane fields, maybe in construction. It was only the most recent day of a lifetime of blood and sweat poured into continuous labor. Let's suppose your father came here, to the Dominican Republic, from Haiti in the 1940s, recruited officially by the state-owned Dominican sugar industry. Here he met your mother, a Dominican woman. You were born with the help of a midwife, in the house next door to the one you now occupy with your family.

Don't worry, your imagination has not run wild: your story as it stands is like that of thousands of people living in the Dominican Republic.

Suddenly there is tremendous commotion in your neighborhood. Soldiers of the Dominican army appear in doorways, asking for papers. The Dominican government is exercising its sovereign right to control foreign immigration into the country. You tell your spouse and children to hide.


Of course, the soldier approaching your door has no way to prove that you are not Dominican. But there will be no hearing.

From the window you can see a bus half-loaded with human beings. The soldiers move from house to house. Some people have papers and are left alone. Some people have no papers, and they are instantly put onto the bus. Some people have papers, but the soldiers simply tear them up and load the people on the bus. There is loud shouting from the soldiers and alarm among the residents. In their hiding place, your family members huddle in fright.

The soldiers come to your house. There should be nothing to worry about. You're Dominican. You were born here. This is your army, trained to protect the country you were born in and the land that you and your parents have worked for years. But, like thousands of others, you have no way to prove it. Neither your mother nor father had identification papers. You weren't born in a hospital. No one ever issued you a birth certificate or government identification.

Of course, the soldier approaching your door has no way to prove that you are not Dominican. But there will be no hearing. You will not have a chance to explain. So how will the soldier determine if you are Dominican or Haitian? He asks your name. He listens to your accent. He looks at the color of your skin. And if your skin is dark enough in tone, if you have difficulty pronouncing your Rs, if your last name sounds strange, he will push you on the bus. No time to collect belongings. No time to say good-bye to your family. Straight onto the bus.

Once on the bus, you proceed to the Dominican border with Haiti. If you're lucky, you might be fed during the trip. If you're even luckier, the bus will go directly to the border and you won't spend days in the army's holding stations. This "luck" is relative. At the end of the line, it's all the same: the bus unloads at one of the bridges crossing the Masacre River and the soldiers force you across into Haiti, closing the gate behind. You are left in a foreign country, not knowing the language and penniless, perhaps without even a change of clothes.

Background on the expulsions

This tragic story, in various permutations, is repeated daily in the Dominican Republic. Don't take my word for it, listen to General Juan Luis Peralta Beco, commander of the Dominican Army's Third Brigade, reporting proudly to the newspaper El Nacional about his troops' operations: "The job isn't easy. Every night several members of the army that work in this area stay up all night patrolling and carrying out raids in which dozens of Haitians are arrested, including women with just-born children in their arms." (Read the full article, in Spanish.)

    For further information:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)
Formation of IACHR's Supervisory Committee for Dominico-Haitians
Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic
National Coalition for Haitian Rights
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Human Rights Center at Columbia Law School

Human Rights Watch's April 2002 report "Illegal People"

In 1991, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a report criticizing the Dominican government's collective and arbitrary system of expulsions. Unfortunately, the report had little effect. In 1998, therefore, representatives of the Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) began exploring the possibility of taking a case before the Inter-American Commission. Soon after, primary responsibility for the case was turned over to the Human Rights Center at Columbia Law School, since Columbia was looking for a project at the time and the Berkeley Clinic had its hands full with the Education Case. However, the Columbia and Berkeley students have worked together closely on both cases ever since.

The Inter-American Commission ruled that the Dominican immigration-control policy systematically violated the human rights of the Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent subjected to it. This still had little effect on the policy. As a result, the various petitioners and the Commission opted to pursue the case in the form of a request for Preliminary Measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. (Preliminary Measures are a sort of injunctive relief offered by the court for cases in which irreparable harm would otherwise befall the petitioner.)

The action's result was mixed. The court did not find that the Dominican Republic practices massive and collective expulsions. The court furthermore refused to recognize all people subject to the Dominican expulsion system — Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent alike — as a legal class. However, when presented with the specific cases of seven individuals and their families who had been subjected to sudden and arbitrary expulsions, the court ordered specific remedies. For families that were separated by the expulsions, the court ordered the Dominican government to assist in their reunification. For all the clients, it ordered the distribution of "safe passage" documents, which will permit their holders to re-enter the Dominican Republic, work and travel freely within its borders. It also admonished the Dominican government to keep its immigration-control procedures in line with international human rights standards.

Even after the court's decision, the Dominican government was slow to respond. Frustrated, the court ordered the formation of an Implementation Committee to oversee compliance with the Court's requirements, which met in Santo Domingo this April. Safe-passage documents were given to many of the clients. The Implementation Committee — of which the Berkeley Human Rights Clinic is part — drew tremendous criticism in the Dominican press. Seizing the issue for election purposes, nationalist politicians complained that in submitting to the committee's demands, the Dominican government was abdicating its sovereignty. Others launched a constitutional challenge against the committee before the Dominican Supreme Court.

The situation now

As the case stands, the Implementation Committee is preparing for a second meeting this fall. In the meantime, since no Columbia student has come to the Dominican Republic this summer to work on the case, I get to do some of the work. In particular, I will try to arrange for the reunification of one client with his family and for the distribution of safe-passage documents to several of the clients, some in Haiti and some in the Dominican Republic, who have not received them. I will also analyze the status of the Dominican Supreme Court case and possible reforms to Dominican immigration law.


Ask the Author:

Tim Griffiths has agreed to answer your questions, time permitting. Email Tim in Santo Domingo.

The real challenge with this case is one of public relations. The legal human rights arguments are strong. Ultimately, however, the solution will require a lot of political will. Unless we can convince people here in the Dominican Republic that protecting the rights of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent is not only in accord with some abstract human-rights convention, but also a good and morally right thing to do, Dominicans are likely to view our actions as outside meddling in Dominican affairs. The Human Rights Watch's recent report "Illegal People" was a step in the right direction. Not only did the report spotlight Human Rights Watch's authority on the subject, it also did an excellent job of personalizing the issues. Like people everywhere, Dominicans are not likely to respond to the announcement that they are in violation of Article 212, subsection P, paragraph 4 of the East Anglican Bishops' Convention on the Proper Treatment of Migrant Plumbers — a joke, in case you were about to look it up. But I'd like to think that, once they fully understand that their government's policy is tearing apart families and displacing people who were born here and have lived in this country for decades, they will care.

As the petitioners in this case, we never for a minute claim that the Dominican Republic does not have the sovereign right to control the immigration of foreigners into its territory. Our argument is simply that in exercising this control, the Dominican government must take steps to safeguard the rights of those subject to its immigration procedures. Especially in a country where so many people — both foreigners and nationals — are undocumented, every individual has a right to the opportunity to show that she is in the Dominican Republic legally. Furthermore, those that are ultimately selected to be deported have a right to collect their belongings and to humane treatment while in the custody of Dominican migration officials.

—Tim Griffiths


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