In a shocking example of state-implemented racism, courts in the Dominican Republic recently ruled to strip the citizenship of thousands of immigrant-born children and their descendants. The Dominican Constitutional Court, the highest court in the DR, ruled that if the Dominican-born children of immigrants had not been “properly registered,” they and their parents would not be granted Dominican citizenship under the principle of jus soli, being born on the soil of a country, which has in the past applied in the Dominican Republic. This is a horrifying display of the anti-Haitian racism in Dominican society, but it is important to remember that this is not an isolated case. Racism surrounding issues of citizenship was created in Europe, spread to the rest of the world through colonisation, and continues to dominate the West.

Image courtesy of Roi Boshi, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Roi Boshi, © 2009, some rights reserved.

The Dominican Republic has a troubled history with Haiti, its western neighbor on the island of Hispaniola. Haiti, originally a French colony, and the Dominican Republic, originally a Spanish colony, have been close friends at times and gone to war at others. While now technically close friends, there remains tension between the comparatively wealthy Dominican Republic and the poorer Haiti, which has also survived natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake. The poverty in Haiti means that thousands of Haitians have immigrated to the Dominican Republic for work, providing a source of cheap labour that has often been exploited. This exploitation is racially charged, with the Dominicans, who are primarily mixed-race Latina/os, often discriminating against Haitians, who are primarily black. This divide is a legacy of colonisation, when the brutal French system used massive slave populations and the Spanish used comparatively smaller slave populations. Racism against black people persisted after both states became independent and destroyed the slave systems, a legacy of Spanish colonial rule. In the early 20th century, the Dominican government even passed legislation restricting the number of black people allowed into the country, which was promptly ignored by farm companies looking for cheap labour. The Dominican Republic has also had problems with racism against the indigenous Taino population; in 2011, Taino was removed as an option for ethnicity on Dominican national ID cards.

It is these ID cards that are at the centre of the controversy regarding immigration. Every Dominican citizen is entitled to an ID card, which is used for voting, employment, and access to healthcare. In order to maintain their citizenship, the descendants of immigrants will have to show that they and their ancestors were properly registered with the government, a time consuming and costly process. For many of these affected Dominicans, often descendants of the laborers brought in in the early 20th century, and who know no state but the Dominican Republic, proving their citizenship will be impossible. Meanwhile, this semi-legal status will be a boon for companies looking to keep wages down.

This problem of wages is self-fulfilling as well, like many domination-based power structures. Registration is a process that favours those with money, access to education, and those who speak Spanish fluently. These are not things that are easily obtained by poor immigrants looking for a job. Practices of registration and ordering may claim to have good intentions, but they usually just end up shutting out some groups, especially oppressed racial groups. In this case, it keeps the black lower classes down and under constant threat of the loss of their livelihood.

The practice of using low-paid immigrants as labourers is a worldwide one, which raises concerns about human rights in connection with immigration. The threat of deportation keeps workers from being able to effectively demand their rights, making them the perfect target for unethical companies. In the United States, workers on temporary work visas must remain employed in order to stay in the country, holding a sword of Damocles over the heads of workers. If they wish to have access to jobs, they cannot question the harsh working conditions and low pay they are given. This is what makes jus soli birthright citizenship, a primarily American idea, so important. By allowing the children of immigrants to become citizens and providing a path for those immigrants to become citizens as well, American nations offer a route, however imperfect, to cultural diversity and acceptance.

In Europe the situation is even worse. With jus soli citizenship usually based around certain conditions, racism is maintained by the state and immigrants remain second-class citizens for generations. These policies are racist for keeping minorities out but also for oppressing the minorities who are able to enter the country, by keeping them in precarious circumstances. In some sense, these policies serve primarily to make sure minorities behave to the desires of the racist society. It is impractical for most nations to deport the immigrants who are already there. Dominican officials have said that they do not intend to deport the people they are stripping of citizenship, and the political debate about immigration in the United States, bar a few radicals, takes for granted that deportation is not feasible. Instead, this sort of policy takes away access to public resources, even making immigrants averse to call the police for fear of being one of the few people who are deported. This disciplining of immigrants is the effective purpose of making citizenship so hard to obtain, and it is horrifying.

This publication has made arguments for a more borderless world in the past. It is important to recognise and confront the racism that stands in the way of such a goal, and the vested interests that benefit from that racism. When the West rightly shames the Dominican Republic for its actions, they should also look at their own policies that use the same racist logic.