SANTO DOMINGO – In a soft voice, Elena Lorac tells her Kafkaesque story. Born 23 years ago in the midst of the Sabana Grande de Boya sugar cane plantations, 90 kilometers north of Santo Domingo, the young woman is stateless.

Dominican authorities won’t give her a cedula (an ID card), using the excuse that her parents are migrants who came from Haiti to work on Dominican state plantations and who never put their papers in order. “Without a cedula, I can’t do anything, I can’t buy a mobile phone, or open a bank account, or sign up for university,” she says.

Elena wants to study to become a teacher in order to help her mother, who lives alone with her four young brothers and sisters. “She lives in poverty, with God’s help, and she has breast cancer, with no insurance,” says the young girl.

For several months, armed with her birth certificate, Elena was sent from office to office, until March 2010, when an employee at the Junta Central Electoral (JCE), the state registry office, told her she couldn’t get a cedula because her parents “had Haitian names.”

“She told me to go to the Haitian embassy and to declare myself Haitian, but I was born here. I don’t speak Creole or French, I don’t know anybody there, I’ve never been there,” says Elena.

Getting worse

No one knows how many descendants of Haitians born on Dominican soil are in the same legal limbo as Elena. “There hasn’t been any census, but according to several estimates, they are almost 300,000, a majority of whom aren’t registered,” says Francisco Leonardo, a young lawyer who works for Reconocido. This NGO fights for the recognition of the rights of Dominicans of Haitian origin, with the help of the Jesuit help service for refugees and migrants (SJRM).

“The Junta Central refuses to give ID papers on the basis of phenotypical profiles and parents’ names. It lets procedures drag on for years under the pretext of investigation, while the life of the identity seeker is paralyzed,” says the lawyer.

With Reconocido’s help, two groups - one of 28 and the other of 101 Dominicans of Haitian origin - recently won a legal battle in San Pedro de Macoris and El Seibo, in the East. The courts said the JCE “violated the fundamental rights” of the plaintiffs and ordered that it give them cedulas. Far from complying, the JCE undertook an intimidation campaign against young Dominicans of Haitian origin and appealed the decision. “The JCE is using a Supreme Court decision from December 2005 that said that the children of illegal or transiting migrants were not Dominican,” says Leonardo, who says he is ready to continue the fight at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Supreme Court interpretation, which was questioned by prominent jurists, was inscribed in the new Constitution of 2010 by President Leonel Fernandez. He is finishing his third term on August 16, and has entrusted immigration policies to the National Progressive Force (FNP).

Founded by the lawyer Vinicio “Vincho” Castillo – one of Fernandez’s closest advisors – the FNP never ceases to denounce the perils of the “Haitian invasion” and “the great power conspiracy” to merge Haiti and the Dominican Republic, who share the Hispaniola island.

President Fernandez named José Ricardo Taveras, one of the main FNP leaders, to lead the General Migration office. Last June, he published a decree that excluded 30,000 students from schools because their parents were undocumented Haitians. The director had to back peddle after the measure created an outcry.

Pushed into illegality

Created without any consultation, the new migration law also elicited strong reactions. The number of illegal Haitian migrants has continued to increase in recent decades, with the complicity of paid border authorities. Here again there are no official statistics available, and the most common estimate of the number of illegal Haitians is at least one million, approximately 10% of the Dominican population.

For a long time they were concentrated on the sugar plantations, which were mostly state-owned, but they have progressively left this declining industry over the past 20 years. Worn out by the exhausting work in the cane fields, the oldest braceros demonstrated these past few weeks to ask for their 5,117 pesos (106 euros) in monthly pension benefits, which the state owes them but has not yet paid. 

Most of the undocumented Haitians now work in the rice, banana or coffee industries, as well as construction. For its large infrastructure projects, like the Santo Domingo subway, the state is still an important employer of illegal labor, either directly or through sub-contractors. Agricultural producers and real estate promoters denounce what they say is the excessive cost of obtaining documents for illegal workers they believe are essential for their activity.

“The current FNP leaders have a bad understanding of immigration realities, and the policies they advocate can only cause more illegality and human rights violations,” says father Mario Serrano, who leads the SJRM.