Stateless in the Americas

(mnbrown001 via Flickr Commons)

What does it mean to lose your citizenship? It’s subtle: you can’t pick out the stateless in a crowd. But lacking national identity, stateless people lack national protection. They are generally barred from access to schooling, health care, and jobs; the loss of voting rights may be the least of it. Without nationality, they have no passports—and therefore no right to re-enter if they travel outside of the country in which they live. Should they be deported, they have no embassy from which to seek good counsel or sanctuary.

That is what the Dominican Republic has just done, depriving tens of thousands—some estimates run to hundreds of thousands—of their DR nationality, making them stateless in the country of their birth.

People of Haitian descent have long crossed the DR border: some arrived illegally, but many came legally, recruited for backbreaking labor on sugar plantations, one of the DR’s top two exports. Many more were born in the DR, whose constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, recognized birthright citizenship. But a few years ago the legislature limited birthright citizenship to those with one Dominican parent or whose parents were legal immigrants. And last month the nation’s Supreme Court locked into law the widespread informal denial of birth certificates and ordered an audit of birth records back to 1929, turning even fourth-generation Dominicans of Haitian descent into people without a country.

From 2009 to 2011, Lauren O’Gara, who now lives in Chicago, volunteered in a school run by the Philadelphia-based Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, the capital of the DR. She taught reading to the children of the Batey Lecheria—one of the settlements that were once the barracks housing for former sugar plantations. There was no running water, no paved roads, erratic electricity. Three or four DR generations originally of Haitian descent live on the batey. “No one had any documents to prove their nationality,” O’Gara remembered during a recent phone interview. “If they had DR papers they were forged.” If they could scrounge a uniform and some fees, the children of the batey could generally attend elementary grades in public schools, but if they sought more advanced education, they needed to take exams, and for that, they needed to present documents. Their parents and grandparents had been recruited for back-breaking labor on sugar plantations, one of the DR’s top two exports. Unemployment is now endemic: “some women find employment as domestics, some men in manual labor.”

Haitians are regularly accused of taking jobs that should go to Dominicans, but exclusion of Haitians regularly blurs into exclusion of all darker people of Dominican descent, who regularly encounter difficulty in getting birth certificates recognizing their nationality and also find themselves excluded from all but manual labor. Technically, all people of DR descent have nationality; in practice they often can not prove it if challenged.

Could this happen in the United States? Recent history provides examples too close for comfort. Not so long ago (the summer of 2010, stretching into the winter of 2011), resentments against undocumented immigrants and anxieties that they were taking jobs away from citizens and burdening welfare systems took the shape of vigorous demands made in a number of state legislatures and, led by Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and David Vitter of Louisiana, in Congress to amend the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to “all persons born in the United States.” Rand Paul’s proposals would have recognized the citizenship only of children born in the United States who had at least one parent who is a citizen, a lawful permanent resident, or an active member of the military. In Congress and in the press, even generally polite legislators used crude language. Blanket accusations were made that pregnant women were entering the United States illegally or on tourist visas to “drop a child” so that their babies would serve as “anchors,” dragging the rest of their relatives into citizenship under the priorities given to citizens seeking to unify families. The effort echoed the principle, explained by the head of the Dominican army, that “an illegal person cannot produce a lawful person.”

As it happened, attention shifted away from these proposals—to building physical walls, to excluding from schools children with uncertain nationality (now organized as young adult “Dream” activists). But the anxieties that fueled the proposal remain. They have surfaced in state laws permitting police to demand proof of citizenship when stopping people for traffic violations (the Department of Justice recently reached an agreement to block Alabama’s “show me your papers” law) and in state-based efforts—so far overturned when challenged in the courts—to require voters to provide additional forms of proof of citizenship.

If we needed even more evidence that—as President Obama declared last week—“this is the moment” to reform the confused and confusing U.S. immigration system, the DR has provided it.

Two years ago in Geneva, on the sixtieth anniversary of the UN Convention on Refugees and the fiftieth anniversary of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the U.S. Secretary of State pledged renewed attentiveness to “the 12 million people who wake up every morning stateless, belonging nowhere at all.” On that anniversary, the United States played a leading role in encouraging over 100 nations to reassert their own country’s commitment to the principles of these conventions and to reducing statelessness throughout the world. (Among the sources of statelessness are the twenty-nine countries whose nationality laws prevent women from acquiring, retaining, or transmitting citizenship to their children or foreign spouses, the people who fell through the cracks in the realignment of the parts of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, as well as the Kurds, Palestinians, and the Roma of Europe.)

Isn’t it ironic that we can deplore unstable nationality elsewhere and simultaneously hesitate to stabilize the nationality of the estimated 11 million people in the United States who lack clear documentation of their condition? The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill would close loopholes in the practices of asylum that have left an estimated 5,000 people stateless in the United States—most recently described in last year’s UNHCR report “Citizens of Nowhere: Solutions for the Stateless in the United States.”

The Dominican Republic had a constitutional tradition of birthright citizenship; the ease with which it has now been upended is chilling. Had Rand Paul’s initiative succeeded, U.S.-born children of the undocumented would not be entitled to U.S. citizenship. They would become people without nationality, owing the United States no allegiance except the obedience forced from them, generation after generation, a permanent underclass of resentful aliens.

Birthright citizenship has protected human rights in just the ways its framers intended. Writing the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, in the face of vicious efforts by the states of the former Confederacy to undo freedom for African Americans, congressmen provided birthright citizenship to insure against successive generations of a stateless underclass.

Now the State Department should recognize the race discrimination at work in the Dominican court’s ruling and work with equally appalled colleagues within the Dominican Republic and with the Organization of American States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and other civil society organizations to persuade the DR legislature to write new law. Every once in a while, the chronic frustrations that are part of the human condition burst out in the United States; years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified a “paranoid style” in American politics. We should not be surprised when the paranoid style resurfaces in fresh forms: we see it now in the resistance to immigration reform and racial profiling in the interest of “proving” citizenship. But a robust commitment to sustaining birthright citizenship, joined to comprehensive immigration reform, can continue to ensure that the United States does not contribute to the stupendous growth of a stateless population that now floods the globe as refugees, asylum seekers, trafficked persons, and irregular migrants. The Dominican Republic has sadly provided the chilling alternative.


Linda K. Kerber is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. She is the author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship.