By Ezra Fieser
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The Dominican government is facing intense international pressure over a court ruling that stripped citizenship from hundreds of thousands of people and threatens to damage the tourism-dependent country's reputation.
Foreign leaders, United Nations agencies, human rights groups and members of the Dominican diaspora in the United States have called on the government to reverse the September 23 court ruling that strips Dominican nationality from children of illegal immigrants even if they were born on Dominican soil and had been granted their documents.
A network of 25 groups and human rights activists delivered a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday asking him to use "all available points of leverage" to pressure the Dominican government into reversing the ruling.
"We plan to continue mounting pressure on the government here in the Dominican Republic with demonstrations and protests. And we're urging everyone to stand up for their rights, they are Dominicans," said Manuel Robles, a spokesman for Dominicanos Por Derecho, an umbrella group spearheading the campaign against the ruling.
Grassroots groups have taken to social media channels calling for tourists to boycott the Dominican Republic, likening the ruling to apartheid in South Africa. The Dominican Republic is the most visited destination in the Caribbean and the $5 billion tourism sector is its largest foreign exchange earner.
Dominican Tourism Ministry advised offices worldwide to be prepared to "clarify" the country's position on the ruling, the ministry told Reuters.
"The Dominican Republic specializes in tourism that's based on cost. I think it's unlikely that a boycott call will result in much, if any, impact," said Pavel Isa Contreras, a Dominican economist and professor at the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology. "The more worrisome question for the government is whether foreign investment will be affected."
Those affected by the ruling are mostly descendants of Haitian immigrants who have long traveled to neighboring Dominican Republic in search of work.
The ruling could leave them without basic rights - such as the right to vote - and create problems accessing basic services, including public education, human rights groups said.
The court decision appears to already have dampened chances for the Dominican Republic to obtain full membership into the Caribbean Community, an organization of 15 Caribbean states that focuses on economic integration of the region.
Dominican leaders have tried to play down the ruling as a bureaucratic necessity.
"The Dominican state does everything it can to offer a dignified treatment, including upholding human rights, to all those living the country," the government's legal adviser, Cesar Pina Toribio, told a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington on Tuesday.
"We have received an unjustifiably hostile response" from the international community, he said.
Pina traveled to Washington as part of a high-level government delegation seeking to frame the court's decision as a humanitarian way out of legal limbo for thousands of people who are living in the country without access to needed identity documents.
Last week, Dominican President Danilo Medina met with 23 European and Latin American representatives in what was described by local press as a "diplomatic offensive" to clarify the country's position on the ruling.
Medina said his government in the next 60 days would review the birth registry to determine how many people will be affected by the ruling. He promised to "implement a clear and transparent migration policy" that would provide a path to residency for those affected, according to a presidential palace statement.
A census released earlier this year found 245,000 Dominican-born first-generation children of immigrants living in the country. Analysts say the number of people affected is higher, and the ruling could apply to four generations of some families.
While they are eligible to apply for citizenship in Haiti, many have never been to the country of their parents' birth and do not speak Haitian Creole.
Pina said on Tuesday predictions that hundreds of thousands will be affected are "alarmist." He said the government would move quickly to determine exactly how many people are affected by the ruling.
(Editing by David Adams and Mohammad Zargham)