By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — As Dominican and Haitian officials meet to discuss the recent court ruling that would revoke the citizenship of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, local residents are hopeful the talks will yield a peaceful result.
“I was surprised about the decree and wondered what made them decide this,” said the Rev. Jean Joseph, pastor of the Church of God in Lawrence. “ They know the people and whatever goes on in Haiti affect them.”
“This is a difficult situation because it shows a lack of respect for human beings and is a bad example for the world,” Joseph said. “I understand they are two different countries and governments, but is still one island and why can’t we sit down and live as brother and sisters?”
In September, the Dominican Constitutional court ruled that people born in the country after 1929 to Haitians living illegally are not automatically citizens. The decree cannot be appealed leaving it up to Dominican and Haitian officials to find ways to annul the decision which will affect an estimated 200,000 people.
The United Nations, Caribbean leaders and human rights groups have condemned the ruling. The issue has caught the attention of Massachusetts religious leaders and politicians.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley head of the Archdiocese of Boston wrote a letter last month to Cardinal Aníbal de Castro Rodríguez in the Dominican Republic noting the affection he has for the country and its people.
“It is in the same spirit that I turn to you today to share my sadness at the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling that creates such hardship for so many people of Haitian extraction,” O’Malley wrote.
“Every country has the right to control its own boundaries, but no one has the right to trample people’s dignity and diminish their humanity,” O’Malley continued.
“It is my hope that at this Christmas season the government and people of the Dominican Republic will reject these unjust rulings that cause so much pain and suffering. I hope and pray that the government and people of the Dominican Republic will be inspired by the ideals of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that appears on your beautiful national flag. The example of leaders like Martin Luther King and President Mandela points to the kind of resolve and humanity that is required to rid our world of the spiritual disease of racism,” O’Malley wrote.
Members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation, including Niki Tsongas, were among 19 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who wrote to Dominican President Danilo Medina to “express our deep concern” about the tribunal’s decree.
“While we recognize the ability of any government to regulate access to nationality, any such domestic regulation must still conform to universally accepted obligations of non discrimination, due process and a government’s duty to prevent statelessness,” the letter said.
Local Dominicans and Haitians are appalled about the decree, but happy the two governments are looking for ways to come to work around it.
“I’m glad about the dialogue because there may be a positive solution from it to the relation between Dominicans and Haitians,” said the Rev. Victor Jarvis, a member of the Lawrence Human Rights Commission. “But the racism is not going to be resolved with just talks. Both governments have to come to an agreement.”
Jarvis, pastor of Ebenezer Christian Church, and others said the decree could severely affect the business relations between the two countries.
“The decree has brought to the limelight how Haitians are treated and somehow the country will have to do something to make it right,” Jarvis said.
Jarvis and Rev. Jean Joseph said the national and international community should pressure on the Dominican Republic to help solve the problem.
Mass. has third largest Haitian population in U.S.
The Caribbean Community and Common Market, known by CARICOM has refused full membership to the Dominican Republic over the decree.
Most of the Haitians living in the Dominican Republic work in construction, sugar cane fields and as domestics. Dominicans have crossed the border into Haiti to work as engineers and technicians.
Massachusetts has the third largest Haitian population in the United States and is home to an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Haitians with Florida coming in first with 250,000 Haitians.
Many Haitians in the state work in the health care industry. Some estimate that up to 75 percent of all nursing home workers are Haitian. Other popular fields for Haitian immigrants are high-tech and education.
In politics, Massachusetts state Rep. Marie St. Fleur was a top aide to former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino) and state representative, Linda Dorcena Forry.
They have also made their mark in the sports world. Gosder Cherilus, who graduated from Sommerville High and Boston College, is an offensive lineman for the Colts who’ll be playing the Patriots on Saturday; Vladimir Ducasse is an offensive lineman for the New York Jets. Ducasse studied at University of Massachusetts and Samuel Dalembert, plays with the Dallas Mavericks.
Ligia Domenech, assistant professor of history in the Department of Global Studies at Northern Essex Community College said the Dominican Republic is not the only country in the world that does not provide automatic citizenship at birth.
She said among the developed nations the United States and Canada are the two countries which automatically grants citizenship to babies born in those countries even if one or both parents are illegal immigrants, tourists, or living here on a student visa.
“It is more common than not. It has to do with countries to populate themselves,” she said.
Domenech said the Center for Immigrant Studies has a list of 185 countries throughout the world which shows only 31 of them offers birthright citizenship. among them are El Salvador, Argentina, Azerbaijian and others in the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa.
Without Dominican citizenship, Dominican born Haitians will not be able to vote, attend school, receive medical care.
“This is not just a paper, it’s their livelihood,” Domenech said.
Dominican immigration officials are giving Dominican born Haitians 18 months to register and apply for residency.
“It’s important for them not to be afraid and run. The naturalization process will allow them to get their citizenship and it’s important for them to take advantage of it,” Domenech said. “If they get the proper id and get naturalized, it will end problems for future generations.”
Johny Castillo addressed the decree on his radio show recently after seeing many posts on Facebook attacking Haitians. His goal in talking about the issue was to educate listeners.
“If I was able to educate at least one person, my time was worth it. They don’t understand that the decree hurts Dominicans who are children of Haitians who were contracted to work in the sugar cane fields and to do other jobs,” Castillo said.
“This is abusive, cruel and inhumane against Dominicans whose only offense, sin or mistake was to be chosen by God to be born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian parents.
“I wanted to offer them my support because they are afraid and there is a lot of misinformation out there,” Castillo said.
“I admire Haitians because they are hard workers and loyal. I support and defend them because they are my brothers they were born in the Dominican Republic,” Castillo said.