Heal the wounds of Hispaniola

Dominican woman of Haitian descent lives in a camp at the border.
Dominican woman of Haitian descent lives in a camp at the border.

Secretary of State Kerry was in the news recently for his efforts to bring together the divided island of Cyprus, a peace effort that has long eluded mediators, earning the island the reputation of being “a graveyard for diplomats.”

Hoping for a resurrection, Kerry noted “how much the world could use an island of peace, harmony and prosperity in the Mediterranean right now.”

Just two hours south of Florida, the island of Hispaniola could use some mediation as well. The refugee crisis taking place in the Middle East and across Europe has focused the world’s attention on the plight of people who desperately need a place to call home where they can survive and thrive.

This crisis should make us acutely sensitive and accountable to its occurrence in our own hemispheric neighborhood. Since 2013, when the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court issued a sentence rescinding citizenship from children born in the country to undocumented immigrants, retroactive to 1929, thousands of men, women and children of Haitian descent have found themselves stateless.

Confusion has also resulted from grouping these birthright Dominicans with undocumented Haitians, who indeed are Haitian citizens — and which muddies the statelessness issue, mistaking it with the immigration challenges many nations are facing. But they are not one and the same demographic, though the humanitarian crisis in deportation camps affects them both.

Efforts to correct the situation of the first group through a “regularization program” have not been effective. Bureaucratic mazes, lack of consistency and accountability from those executing the program, unaffordable and insurmountable requirements, confusion about particular categories of prior documentation and shifting deadlines give the impression that the official attempt is mere appeasement of the international outcry raised by this humanitarian crisis.

Those who have spoken out often have been denounced, harassed and threatened, most prominently authors Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz, who, in a Kafkaesque turn, was de-awarded an earlier award by the Dominican Republic for his writing. The U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, James Brewster, who is gay, was chided by the nation’s cardinal for calling attention to human-rights abuses and corruption and told to go back to his embassy and focus on housework, since “he is the wife of a man.”

Sometimes the crisis reaches such ridiculous extremes that we forget what is at stake. Following a report from Amnesty International in October outlining the humanitarian crisis and statements of concern by both Ambassador Brewster and Alfonso Navarro, ambassador of the European Union, officials from governmental agencies are increasing their efforts to address the situation with more transparency and urgency, including opening an office in the Foreign Ministry to monitor the process and investigate complaints.

José Tomás Pérez, Dominican ambassador to the United States, has made assurances that no indiscriminate deportations have occurred and that no one born on Dominican soil will be expelled or deported. But human-rights groups and photojournalists such as Amy Martin document another story in the deportation camps that have sprung up across the border.

Thousands have been deported, among them undocumented Haitians, but also birthright Dominicans, who suddenly find themselves in a country where they have never lived and whose language they do not speak. Others have self-deported, victims of violence, house burnings, vandalism and xenophobic threats, with limited recourse for protection from local authorities.

The government says it is doing all it can, but the faces and stories that Martin captures say it is not enough. We must do more to help by encouraging Dominican and Haitian authorities to regularize the status of all their citizens and by providing humanitarian assistance to those who find themselves destitute, stateless and bereft of hope.

The world could use an island of peace, harmony and prosperity anywhere right now. Close to home might be a place to start.

Julia Alvarez is the author of “In the Time of the Butterflies” and, most recently, “A Wedding in Haiti.” See Amy Martin’s photos at amysmartin