The Dominican Republic, Haiti and the global nature of the immigration debate

Let me start with this disclaimer: I am Dominican and am an immigrant in the U.S.

Tuesday, I attended a discussion at the Center for Strategic International Studies on the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti; recent developments in Dominican law pushed the topic of immigration to center stage.

Much like the United States, the Dominican Republic has long grappled with illegal immigration across its only land border, which the country shares with Haiti. It’s one small island – 29,530 square miles to be exact – divided unevenly between the two nations.Puzzling is one word to describe the stark contrast on each side of the border. The Dominican Republic, while containing a large number of poor, has seen growth in agriculture and tourism for decades. Haiti’s soil is largely unfarmable, and high levels of crime detract from its marketability as a tourist destination. Adding insult to injury, the 2011 earthquake that struck Haiti left little for its people to survive, much less thrive on.

It is then no surprise that thousands of Haitians, millions over decades, have crossed into the Dominican Republic looking for work. For the most part, these immigrants are extremely poor, uneducated, and now conform as much as 10 percent of the total population of the Dominican Republic.

And now, here we are. In September 2013, the highest court in the Dominican Republic ruled that Dominican citizenship only belonged to those with at least one Dominican parent. The ruling will apply retroactively – those born in Dominican soil to undocumented parents will in essence inherit their parents’ illegal status.

Anibal de Castro, Dominican ambassador to the United States, defended the ruling at the discussion, conducted in Spanish, before a few opponents.

My sister and me at a beach in the Dominican Republic.

De Castro’s arguments: the ruling is only an interpretation of existing laws and the Dominican Republic is sovereign and can decide how to deal with its immigration issues.

He compared the issues the Dominican Republic is facing with immigration in Canada and the United States.

In Canada, he said, most of the population lives by the border, with many more resources than those of our small, shared island.

“Is immigration a problem for Canada? No,” De Castro said. “Immigration does present a problem for the Dominican Republic.”

He then juxtaposed the number of immigrants in the U.S. to those in the Dominican Republic. Currently, the undocumented population in the Dominican Republic is estimated as roughly 10 percent. Translated to America, that would equate to 30 million undocumented immigrants. The discussion in the United States continues to intensify over 11.7 million.

But take a look at the other side of the coin. The retroactive nature of the ruling affects three generations of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Think America without the 14th amendment, where children born to undocumented parents are left without a way to obtain essential documents such as passports and identification cards.

De Castro affirmed that no Haitians have been deported or have had their citizenship taken away. Domestic and International cries have prompted the government to begin the “Plan de Regularization,” or regularization plan, to assist Haitians in obtaining legal status in the Dominican Republic. This week, though, leaders from both countries agreed that Haiti would have to provide these immigrants with passports and other documents.

Thousands of them are not able to read or write.

The U.S. is clearly not the only country grappling with issues relating to immigration. Globalization has given way to migration in large numbers and now countries experiencing large influxes have no option but to question its effect on its territory. In the end, immigration is half a question of politics and economics, and half a question of identity. Nationalism versus economic viability.

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