Stateless in their own country

October 15, 2013

La Romana, Dominican Republic

By Ricardo Rojas

“I have no country. What will become of me?” said Dominican-born Blemi Igsema, 27, standing with relatives outside the family’s wooden shack in Batey La Higuera, near La Romana, the heart of the Dominican Republic’s sugar cane industry.

Blemi’s grandparents were Haitian immigrants who came to cut sugar cane decades ago.

“We are Dominicans – we have never been to Haiti. We were born and raised here. We don’t even speak Creole,” she said, referring to Haiti’s native tongue.

I traveled to La Romana after hearing of the Constitutional Court’s decision that bars Dominican-born children of immigrants from acquiring citizenship. Not only does the court change the rules, it was declared to be in effect retroactively all the way back to 1929. It means that the children of tens of thousands of immigrants born outside the Dominican Republic after 1929 will be stripped of their Dominican nationality, as would their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Tens of thousands of formerly legal Dominicans would suddenly become stateless.

Initially, this concerned me as a Chilean citizen with children born in the Dominican Republic. But after checking, I realized that this was a law based on color; it was mainly designed to affect the generations of Haitian descendants in the country. The retroactive nature of the law means that anyone whose parents or grandparents or even great grandparents were “in transit” in the country when they were born, inherit the status of “illegal immigrant” in the country.

Once I understood that this harsh, racist punishment impacted as many as five generations of Haitian immigrants starting with those who arrived to work in sugar cane fields, in charcoal ovens, and on farms, I decided to travel to the ‘bateys,’ or communities created to house sugar cane workers, in Seibo province.

I traveled along long stretches of roads that bisect sugar cane plantations on the eastern end of the island, to find families affected by the new law. In Batey La Higuera I met the family of Policiia Olvilsen, an elderly woman with a beautiful smile and a red scarf over her white hair. She met me with a grin and a look of hope, and then turned to her family to say, “The photographer is here. Come on.”

She introduced me to her family of four generations, and I was surprised by how many they were. All were born in the Dominican Republic except her. Policiia immigrated here when she was 12 with her parents who came to cut sugar cane. That was more than seven decades ago, and she never returned to Haiti.

After I spent time with all the generations of her family and listened to their description of what this all means to them, I felt like I was suddenly in a country that only wanted Haitians to do the hard work. Does the government even care that these people feel as Dominican as they do?

One of the grandchildren, Sobeida, told me, “This ruins the future of the children of Haitian parents, and it keeps us from studying and improving ourselves. Without papers we can’t study in the university and live with dignity. I was born and raised in this Dominican land.”

I wanted to learn more about these people and their stories, so I continued on to a tiny village called La Loma. There I met Haitian-born Leguisie Louis, a frail, elderly man who greeted me with great affection and humility that instilled a lot of confidence in me. He was working on his small plot of land on a hilltop, from where we could see the great fields which had been tended by these families over many decades.

With his tattered hat and accompanied by his beautiful great granddaughter, Maxileidy, the third generation of his family to be born in the Dominican Republic, he told me that he arrived here in 1957. It was here that he met his wife, Virgilia Vicil. They have a total of 11 children, 32 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren, all born in La Loma.

“Come, come, that’s where my people are,” Leguisie said to me as he picked up his things and invited me to his home. I felt so comfortable with their hospitality. At their home I met a genuine family from the countryside, true hosts in their own land. I couldn’t understand why anyone would think of taking away their land or the nationality that they earned with hard work and sweat. Virgilia told me she was born here on this land, where her Haitian grandparents arrived as sugar cane cutters.

“Son,” she said, “I’ve never been to the capital and I don’t even know Haiti.” She doesn’t even know if she has family in Haiti. On her side of the family, five generations are Dominican-born.

I now had even more questions than answers.

I wondered why they still call them Haitians, whether it’s for their color, humility, or their inner beauty. They are Dominicans of Haitian descent, proud of the Dominican flag, educated and raised in Dominican schools, fully versed in Dominican law, traditions, and culture. Why are they now rejected?

Virgilia told me about how she sang the Dominican national anthem louder than anyone else at school, how she was the best student with only the top grades on all her tests. But she couldn’t go to college because she didn’t have the right papers. Is education a right or a privilege here?

From La Loma I continued on to Batey K8, where I met Sentilia Igsema, an elderly woman with drooping eyelids but full of energy. Born to Haitian immigrants, she held out to me with pride her Dominican ID, confirming that she was born here in 1930. At her age, who is going to tell her that her ID card is no longer valid?

But she did understand that she might become stateless. “Oh lord, I don’t even have family in Haiti. Why are they going to take away my ID card?”

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