Op-Ed

The question of birth citizenship

A couple identified only as Roberto and Yoseline with their children at their home in Sabaneta, Dominican Republic. Yoseline has been unable to prove citizenship.
A couple identified only as Roberto and Yoseline with their children at their home in Sabaneta, Dominican Republic. Yoseline has been unable to prove citizenship. NYT

The Dominican Republic’s mass deportation of Haitian immigrants has created a humanitarian crisis – and Americans are not watching closely enough. At the heart of this crisis lies the political debate over immigration reform and birthright citizenship – debates that cycle through the U.S. news every few years as political candidates rally voter support.

Supporters of undocumented immigrants see a population needed but unwanted, while opponents denounce these immigrant groups as a drain on the nation’s resources. Identical debates in the Dominican Republic have led to today’s disastrously mishandled situation.

I spent the past 10 months in the Dominican Republic researching mental health. After spending countless hours with families in their homes eating, laughing and crying with them, it became clear that Dominican immigration policy should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States.

Yolanda, 26, was born in the Dominican Republic but cannot call herself a Dominican citizen. Her father emigrated from Haiti in the 1970s, when a contractual relationship between Haiti and the D.R. encouraged Haitian immigration, needed for the back-breaking work of cutting sugar cane. Yolanda’s father was given a document called a ficha, or a temporary workers’ card, issued by sugar cane companies. Under the laws at that time, he was able to use that ficha to get Dominican birth certificates for each of his four children, including Yolanda.

In general, nationality can be based on two principles: jus sanguinis and jus soli. Jus soli citizenship, “right of soil,” is based on being born in a territory. This is commonly known as birthright citizenship. The law of jus sanguinis, “right of blood,” is based on bloodline and grants a child the nationality of one or both parents. As of 2004, the Dominican Republic grants citizenship to all those born on Dominican soil, except those born “in transit.” Previously, this definition was applied to migrant workers and children of diplomats. In 2013, however, “in transit” was re-defined to include persons born to undocumented parents. Since Yolanda’s father stayed in the Dominican Republic after his workers’ card expired, her own Dominican citizenship is in question.

In the United States, Mexican immigrants are the “needed but unwanted” population. The Bracero Program brought millions of Mexican workers to the U.S. under a bilateral contractual agreement between 1942 and 1964. Most worked in agriculture. Today, Mexican immigrants have continued to fill an economic need in the U.S. labor market, but they face a swirling combination of anti-immigrant sentiment and racism – much like Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

Conservatives in the Dominican Republic reference stereotypically negative anecdotes about the big families that Haitians have, the crimes they commit and their collective burden on public resources. They flood to a neighboring country hoping to escape poverty, but they bring all their problems with them. The situation is so bad in Haiti that they come to the Dominican Republic just so they can have Dominican babies.

Sound familiar?

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures birthright citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil. Its original purpose was to ensure that the children of freed slaves were U.S. citizens after the Civil War. A few conservative legislators have proposed a re-interpretation of this clause. They argue that it encourages illegal immigration and provides incentive for “birth tourism” – the practice of entering a country to give birth to ensure citizenship for the baby. Senators like David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, and Steve King, an Iowa Republican, have introduced proposals this year to limit birthright citizenship.

Yolanda has a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. Because her documents are in question, she cannot get birth certificates for her children. Not only that, she is at risk for deportation to Haiti – a country she has never known.

As the political season picks up, immigration reform will surely be up for debate. While it is easy to point fingers and cringe at headlines like “racism and ethnic cleansing of Haitians in the Dominican Republic,” we would do better to examine our current and future immigration policies. We could be next.

Trenita B. Childers is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Duke University.

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