By Manuel Jimenez
SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The government announced details of a special naturalization process for undocumented "foreigners" and their children born in the Dominican Republic, in a presidential decree issued on Saturday.
The decree was signed by President Danilo Medina following a controversial court ruling last September that could strip Dominican citizenship from hundreds of thousands of children born over the last 84 years to migrants deemed to be living in the country illegally.
It was unclear exactly what the terms of eligibility for citizenship would be.
The Dominican government has come under intense international pressure over the September 23 ruling by the country's Constitutional Court. United Nations agencies, foreign leaders and human rights groups have all questioned its legitimacy, saying it could leave more than 200,000 Haitian migrants stateless, many of whom were born on Dominican soil decades ago.
The court ruling retroactively denied Dominican nationality to anyone born after 1929 who does not have at least one parent of Dominican blood, citing a constitutional clause declaring all others to be in the country illegally or "in transit."
The naturalization plan, outlined in 39 articles listed in the presidential decree, creates several different migration categories, including permanent and temporary residents. It takes into account parents with children born in the country, knowledge of written and spoken Spanish, education level, property ownership, employment, financial means and criminal history.
It gives those affected by the ruling 18 months to request Dominican citizenship from the time the law comes into effect. Those who do not choose to seek eligibility can request repatriation or will face deportation, according to the decree.
The government said the "National Regularization Plan for foreigners" will be submitted to Congress for approval in the coming weeks. It added that deportations would not be carried out during the 18-month application period.
"This decree is of fundamental importance as it establishes the criteria that will serve to establish the length of stay in the country, ties to society, and the employment and socio-economic status of foreigners," living in the Dominican Republic, said a statement by the president's press office.
It said this would provide the country with a "modern, transparent and functional migration regulation for foreigners in an irregular migration situation."
The government also appointed Florinda Rojas, a human rights lawyer and former United Nations official to head the newly created National Migration Institute, tasked with providing technical assistance to a council in charge of implementing migration policy.
The decree comes amid rising border tensions after more than 200 Haitians were repatriated by Dominican authorities last weekend following a murder of an elderly Dominican couple in a southwestern town near the Haitian border.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, initially agreed to talks mediated by the Venezuelan government to resolve their differences over the ruling. But the Dominican Republic broke off the talks after Haiti's president appeared at a regional meeting of Caribbean government heads last week where the Dominican court ruling was criticized in scathing terms.
The Dominican Republic's population of 10 million includes about 458,000 people of Haitian descent, many of whom lack proper documents, according to official figures. About 240,000 of those people of Haitian descent were born in the Dominican Republic.
(Writing by David Adams; editing by Christopher Wilson)