By Ricardo Rojas
LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic (Reuters) - For four generations Banesa Blemi's family, descendants of Haitian immigrants, put down roots as low-wage sugar cane cutters in their adopted homeland, and came to consider themselves Dominicans.
Then, last month the country's Constitutional Court issued a decision effectively denationalizing Blemi and her family, along with an estimated 250,000 fellow immigrants born after 1929.
"I have no country. What will become of me?" said Blemi, 27, standing with relatives outside the family's wooden shack near La Romana, the heart of the Dominican Republic's sugar cane industry and one of the Caribbean's top tourist resorts.
"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.
The September 23 court ruling retroactively denies Dominican nationality to anyone born after 1929 who does not have at least one parent of Dominican blood, under a constitutional clause declaring all others to be either in the country illegally or "in transit."
The judgment is final, but human rights groups plan to challenge it before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where it could in theory still be overuled.
Dominican President Danilo Medina appeared to distance himself from the ruling this week after he met with human rights groups. "I don't know if legally an injustice has been committed, but there's a human problem we have to solve," he said.
An immigrant census released earlier this year estimated there were 245,000 Dominican-born, first-generation children of immigrants living in the country. But the number affected by the ruling is likely to be exponentially higher, activists said, because it applies to other generations as well, such as Blemi and her children.
The vast majority of immigrant children - 210,000 - were of Haitian descent. It's estimated there are another 460,000 non-native Haitian migrants living in the country.
Mu-Kien Adriana Sang Ben, a noted Dominican historian and author, said the court sought to normalize a complicated migratory system but had only created an even more "serious and grave situation," with unintended consequences.
"This affects the sons and daughter of immigrants of not just Haitians, but Jews, Europeans, Chinese - the entire country," she told Reuters.
Sang's father was a Chinese immigrant who arrived in 1936 and became a legal resident before starting his family.
National Human Rights Commission President Manuel Maria Mercedes said the court clearly targeted the descendants of Haitians with the ruling: "This is racism and xenophobia."
The ruling touches a centuries-old nerve in the Dominican Republic, stemming from the country's occupation by neighboring Haiti in the early 19th century.
After Haiti won its independence in 1804 from France in a bloody revolution led by former slaves, Haitian troops occupied the Dominican Republic, then ruled by Spain, for 22 years, from 1822 to 1844, when the country won its own independence. Dominican school textbooks recount atrocities committed by Haitian troops during the occupation.
Many poor Haitians continued to find work in the Dominican sugar cane fields though deep mistrust persisted. In 1937 Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo sought to drive out the Haitians, resulting in a slaughter estimated at anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 men, women and children.
The country is evenly divided over the citizenship issue, according to one poll.
The Dominican Republic, which has a population of about 10 million, has long complained of illegal migration of undocumented workers from its impoverished neighbor, even as it benefits from a steady source of cheap labor.
Most of those affected are the descendants of Haitians who moved to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane fields. Many used a temporary worker's card issued by the former state sugar company as proof of their residence in order to register their offspring.
For decades, the government granted citizenship to all children born on Dominican soil, except those considered in transit, such as foreign diplomats posted in the country. The children of hundreds of thousands of immigrants were automatically granted citizenship once their birth was registered.
But in 2004, the government introduced a migration law that expanded definition of "in transit" to include the children of immigrant citizens without documentation. The government formalized that distinction in 2010 when it passed a new constitution.
"How can you be in transit for 40 years? Transit means coming through the airport for a brief stay on the way to somewhere else," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Caribbean expert at Florida International University in Miami who has done government consulting work in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
A network of human rights activists are drafting a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and working to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. Human Rights Committee based on alleged violations of international law.
Human rights groups successfully sued the Dominican government previously in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights with regard to the same issue. In 2005 the court ruled the government could not use a parent's in-transit status as a reason to deny citizenship.
The U.N. has already expressed concern that the ruling could create a human rights crisis.
The decision could have "disastrous" implications, leaving those affected "stateless and without access to basic services for which identity documents are required," Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters in Geneva.
In its decision, the Dominican Constitutional Court ordered a meticulous review of the civil registry back to 1929.
The court ruling gives the country's Electoral Board one year to draw up a list of people to be excluded from citizenship.
Blemi and others like her say the law leaves them with no future. "We don't have birth certificates that the children must have to study. We don't exist," said Blemi, a mother of three young children, the youngest only a month old.
"Please don't do this to me - I'm going to die," said her grandmother, 82-year-old Sentilia Igsema, showing her Dominican voter ID card.
"I'm asking myself what country am I from. I guess I'm from the country of the undocumented."
(Additional reporting by Manuel Jimenez and Ezra Fieser in Santo Domingo.; Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)