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Fear and Loathing in Santo Domingo

Recently, the government of the Dominican Republic has began to implement a national policy aimed at stripping citizenship from the Dominican-born children of illegal immigrants. Primarily, the affected population consists of Dominican-Haitian adults who have spent their lives being considered legally Dominican. Often, these men and women will have never have left their birth country, are unlikely to speak Creole, and maintain few (if any) ties to Haiti. Predictably the international response has been largely critical of the measure, but so far the Dominicans stuck by their guns.

The theoretical legality of this policy stems from a clause in the country’s 2010 constitution. While restrictive citizenship laws of this nature are not particularly unusual (they have even been discussed in the US Congress from time to time,) their retroactive implementation so as to cover individuals who were previously citizens, very much is. To date, nearly 500 cases resulting from the policy have been brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Understandably, to those outside of the Dominican Republic, the policy raises uncomfortable specters. Historically, when unpopular minority groups (as are Haitians in the DR) have been stripped of citizenship through administrative processes, it has often precipitated future dehumanization. Those seeking an example need look no further than the Kurdish populations in the Middle East or European Jews in the 1930s.

Around the world, national citizenship usually stems from either "jus sanguinis" (“the right of blood") or "jus soli" ("the right of soil") and in most cases can be bestowed through either. The “right of soil” bases citizenship on the sovereignty of the territory in which the person was born. The “right of blood” grants national citizenship based on ancestry or, in rare cases, through religion as in Israel.

To draw an example from my own background, I currently possess three citizenships – the United States, the Netherlands and Venezuela. I was born in New York City when my parents, both of them Venezuelan, were living there on student visas. As such, I qualified for US Citizenship – through jus soli, despite my parents’ lack of long-term permission to reside here – and for Venezuelan citizenship through jus sanguinis. My Dutch citizenship was a result of my grandfather having been born in The Hague and of his citizenship being passed to his Venezuelan-born son, who in turn passed it on to his own American one.

This self-replicating aspect of jus sanguinis understandably gives some countries pause. If I have three citizenships, and my fiancé has two (Venezuela and Spain) does it follow that our children should be entitled to all four? If so, is there a risk that, with transnational populations becoming more common through globalization, the concept of citizenship might be diluted to the point where it loses all meaning?

In response to these concerns, many states (including Holland) are currently attempting to place generational caps on the passing on of citizenship through blood. Doing so makes sense given the above concerns, although it also risks creating a tiered hierarchy of citizenship. Doesn’t it somehow make me less Dutch if my children cannot be Dutch whereas some other Dutchman’s kinderen can?

Regardless, while there is a cogent argument to be made for limiting the exponential mitosis of citizenship through ancestry, the same cannot be said for policies aimed at stripping the citizenship rights of current residents after-the-fact. Unlike people born elsewhere, jus soli citizens are likely to hold strong cultural and psychological connections to their country of birth. Beyond the shattering blow to their personal identity, losing the rights and protections of citizenship can essentially leave people in the unenviable position of either having to vacate the country where they have built their lives or else suffer devastating drops in their standard of living.

Worse yet, these individuals may have no connection at all to their parents’ birth-country and, depending on their ancestral nation’s own jus sanguinis laws, may not even qualify for citizenship. Even where, as in Haiti, the country of ancestry does allow for ancestral citizenship in perpetuity, the necessary documents such as parental birth certificates may be lost. Furthermore, official cooperation from the receptor nation is likely to be unenthusiastic, particularly in cases where they would be repatriating poor populations who are difficult to assimilate culturally; the incentive is just not there. Tragically, the people most likely to be affected by these provisions are also those in the worst position to navigate the bureaucratic fracas that invariably ensues.

For years, Santo Domingo has maintained a policy of wooing its own American-born diaspora into adopting dual-citizenship and bringing much-needed investment and know-how back to the island. How can they continue to do so in good conscience when much of this desired population would not have even qualified for US Citizenship (or the educational opportunities and access to capital that come with it) were America to possess similarly backward immigration and citizenship laws to its own?

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