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Lessons From Hispaniola’s Migration Crisis

people walking over a bridge lined with curled barbed wire, dirt hills on the other side
The Haitian-Dominican border in early 2014. Photo by Flickr user Molly.

If you are an American who lives anywhere other than South Florida, you may have heard little or nothing about the international crisis brewing in the Caribbean.

The island of Hispaniola, located roughly between Cuba and Puerto Rico, is home to over 20 million people between two countries, making it the most populous island in the Americas. The Dominican Republic is a poor country that shares the island with Haiti - for all intents and purposes, a failed state. For many Haitians, the Dominican Republic looks like the land of opportunity.

Or at least it did, until Dominican authorities recently declared, “No mas.”

The country is undertaking what could turn into a mass deportation of Haitians, a group which by its definition includes Dominican-born individuals descended from Haitians who entered as far back as 1929. A 2013 court ruling stripped an estimated 200,000 individuals of citizenship by declaring that being born in the Dominican Republic was no longer automatic grounds for being considered a citizen. Those with Haitian ancestry, even if they had lived their entire lives in the Dominican Republic, found themselves suddenly subject to deportation if unable to prove their citizenship.

Subsequent legislation provided a transition period for now-stateless Dominicans to apply for naturalization, if they could produce documents proving they were born in the country, but only a small fraction complied. Many others claim they were born in private homes and lack documentation of their Dominican birth. That is doubtless true in many cases, and likely false in some. Migrants were also given a window to “regularize” their status, though opaque rules and lengthy waiting periods meant that many of these residents missed the mid-June deadline. This essentially left a large swath of individuals still stateless after the transition period expired.

Not surprisingly, Haitians everywhere, including the government in Port-au-Prince and the Haitian-American community (a large presence in southern Florida), are outraged at the forced repatriations. They accuse Dominican officials of racism - a charge the Dominicans reject, though not very convincingly. Things have gotten so bitter that the Organization of American States has offered to mediate between the two neighbors. So far, however, the Dominican authorities have consistently denied that there is anything to mediate.

For all our fighting about immigration in the United States, the prospect of deporting a native-born population has been inconceivable here, although there are those on the political right who would change this in the interest of fighting “birth tourism.” Anyone who thinks this sounds like a good idea ought to take a good look at how things are playing out on Hispaniola.

In the United States, the 14th Amendment stipulates that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” This seems fairly straightforward; if you are born here, you are a citizen. The amendment has been in place since the aftermath of the Civil War, and while it was originally designed to confer full citizenship to black Americans, it has consistently expanded to include the vast majority of people born on American soil, regardless of their parentage. As I see it, any foreigner present in this country is subject to its jurisdiction except those who have diplomatic immunity and those who are overflying, transiting airports or waterways, or otherwise have not cleared U.S. immigration centers to move freely within our borders.

This view is consistent with both mainstream opinion and legal precedent. The Supreme Court ruled in the late 19th century U.S.-born children of foreign parents were covered by the 14th Amendment, applying the finding to the San Francisco-born son of Chinese parents. The case essentially settled the question of whether non-American parents were subject to the United States’ jurisdiction for the purposes of determining citizenship. Congress extended citizenship to all Native Americans in the 1920s, essentially acknowledging that they were subject to United States jurisdiction despite the unique legal status of tribal sovereignty. Generally, the tendency in the past century or so has been to recognize that, in nearly all cases, being born here is enough to confer citizenship.

Some misguided congressional Republicans want to restrict citizenship to those born here of legal residents. On a practical level, that’s a nightmare. What happens to the child of a woman who arrives here and claims political asylum, and whose claim is pending when the baby is born? Or the child of a woman who was trafficked into this country and subsequently raped? Or to a baby born to a college student who is here on an educational visa, whose parents in a conservative home country have renounced their daughter and her “illegitimate” child? We can’t assume that the mother’s native country will extend citizenship to the children in any of these cases, or that it would be safe or reasonable for the mothers to accept it on their children’s behalf if offered. Are we going to render these children stateless? Or are we going to look back, a couple of generations hence, and tell a class of people that they must prove that they were born here under circumstances qualifying them for citizenship? Do we want to create a future version of the Dominican-Haitian crisis on our own soil?

Birth tourism legislation is a solution in search of a problem. These parents are not “illegal” immigrants; for the most part, the mothers are here on legitimate temporary visas. The children are born in American hospitals and automatically receive American birth certificates and Social Security numbers. Their mothers are not poor immigrants working in sweatshops, at least not the ones arriving from Asia at our airports who seem to be the primary focus of lawmakers’ outrage. These are affluent families who are establishing ties here because, in some future circumstance, their children may want to live here and contribute to our society. That’s a good thing, not a bad one.

The economic arguments in favor of restrictions are, at best, trumped up to cover the racist elements of these proposals. When immigration officers see a pregnant woman at an airport, are they going to administer an ultrasound to determine a due date? (And what happens when a child is born here prematurely?) Are officials going to interrogate the mother about her intentions? It’s fair to guess that a blue-eyed blond woman from Berlin or Stockholm is a lot less likely to be turned away at JFK than an Asian or Hispanic woman arriving at LAX - even if that Asian woman happens to be Canadian.

The 14th Amendment has served this country extremely well since its adoption. It is what guarantees all Americans equal treatment under the law. The crucial first step is to define who qualifies as an American as fairly and objectively as possible. The place of one’s birth is about as objective as it gets. If you’re born here, you belong here.

Sure, we could be like some other countries and look to your parents’ origins. We could make ourselves like Germany, which has a big problem with a Turkish community of guest workers who were never fully accepted into their country’s society. The same thing happened in the Dominican Republic; the fallout from that choice is becoming brutally clear as the crisis there intensifies. But in the United States, we are too big to act that small.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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2 Responses to "Lessons From Hispaniola’s Migration Crisis"

  • J. Martinez
    August 9, 2015 - 11:49 pm

    Sir, you are incorrect about Dominican law. They were not stripped of citizenship. The law is not like the U.S. where everyone is born with citizenship. They were not born with Dominican citizenship.

    See here for a better explanation:

    https://youtu.be/pZzqn5PdjZU

  • M. Sandoval
    August 10, 2015 - 6:11 pm

    Sir, only 30% of the countries in the world have the birthright citizenship. If a woman gives birth in Haiti and her child is not Haitian citizen, she will need to register her child at her country’s embassy.