SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — A newly passed law in the Dominican Republic creates a path to citizenship for the descendants of tens of thousands of migrants who came from neighboring Haiti to toil in sugar fields and do other menial jobs, but human rights groups said Thursday that it fails to address the plight of many more people.
Activists said several loopholes mean the majority of people born in the Dominican Republic to migrants will remain essentially stateless, even as the government celebrated what it called historic legislation.
"They make it look like they are improving and resolving the problem, but they are not," said Santiago Canton, director of Partners for Human Rights at the U.S.-based Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. "It really is very disingenuous."
Senators unanimously approved the bill Wednesday evening, after the lower house gave its OK last week. The measure was been submitted by President Danilo Medina after months of consultations to address a September ruling by the Constitutional Court that effectively rendered thousands of residents stateless.
The court affirmed that people born in the Dominican Republic to illegal migrants were not automatically entitled to citizenship, a ruling that applied retroactively to 1929. It directed the government to purge birth registries of non-citizens, depriving many residents of the documents they need to attend school or do many other basic tasks in the country of 9 million people.
The ruling aggravated longstanding tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the island of Hispaniola, and it caused an international outcry. Human rights groups complained that about 200,000 people could lose their citizenship, the majority of them of Haitian descent. The government maintained that only some 24,000 people would be affected, about 13,000 of them of Haitian ancestry.
Canton said the new law will benefit only about 20,000 people, or 10 percent of those that activists say are affected by the ruling.
"They are taking a small step forward, but they are still continuing with the discrimination against thousands of thousands of people," he said. "The law should apply to absolutely everybody."
The measure applies only to people born to foreigners living in the Dominican Republic between 1929 and 2007 and who are registered with the government. Those who are not registered could apply to become residents and then apply to become naturalized citizens two years later.
Anibal de Castro, the Dominican ambassador to the U.S., said the law creates a streamlined path to citizenship for those born in his country and who do not have documents.
"President Danilo Medina fulfilled his commitment to finding a just and equitable solution for undocumented persons, while giving clarity to an outdated system," de Castro said in a statement.
Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe wrote in a series of tweets that he welcomed the law and considered it a step forward for people who could have been left stateless.
Noemi Mendez, a lawyer who has represented several people affected by the court's ruling, also welcomed the law but noted it allows the government a wide margin of discretion.
Among those affected by the law is 25-year-old Juan Telemin, a Dominican born to Haitian parents who said he was never able to enroll in college because he lacks a birth certificate.
"It is a great injustice that those who could not obtain birth certificates are considered migrants despite having been born and raised in our country," he said.
Ana Maria Belique, spokeswoman for a nonprofit group that has fought for the rights of children born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian migrant workers, praised the law but said she would continue to fight to have everyone included.
"After great hardships and lengthy battles, we have achieved the recognition of something that is obvious, that we are Dominicans," said Belique, who was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian migrants and is still fighting to obtain a birth certificate.
Associated Press writer Ezequiel Lopez reported this story in Santo Domingo and Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.