Moral Leadership in Our Own Hemisphere

06/17/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

Last year, when tens of thousands of children traveled hundreds of miles -- risking death and starvation -- to flee violence and drug gangs in Central America, and showed up on our nation's doorstep, we faced a moral test as a country. We could either send these children back to certain death -- as many Republicans and some Democrats advocated -- or we could listen to our better angels and respond like the generous, compassionate people that we are. I didn't think it was a hard choice. I broke with leaders in the Democratic Party and said we had a moral obligation to take the refugee children in.

We face a similar moral dilemma today. You might not be hearing as much about it because it's not manifesting itself on our border. But it's no less important.

Starting as soon as today, the Dominican Republic is expected to enact a mass deportation program of potentially hundreds of thousands of Dominican residents and citizens who are Haitian, of Haitian descent, and have Haitian last names. This stems, in part, from a 2013 court ruling declaring that individuals born in the Dominican Republic would not longer automatically be considered citizens -- and that this standard would be retroactively applied all the way back to 1929. While the ruling was subsequently softened, it laid the groundwork for the Dominican Republic's efforts today to force hundreds of thousands of Haitian migrant workers and Dominicans of Haitian descent -- some of whom have spent their entire lives in the Dominican Republic -- to be forcibly deported to Haiti unless they can provide proof of their citizenship.

The nation of Haiti is still reeling from the second deadliest earthquake this century, which killed more than 100,000 people. Five years later, 85,000 Haitians remain homeless, and Haiti's economy and infrastructure remain in shambles. The influx of potentially hundreds of thousands of new residents from the Dominican Republic would only create more chaos in a country that in desperately in need of humanitarian assistance and long-term sustainable development.

These mass deportations -- if enacted -- would also be an abhorrent affront to human rights by one of our closest neighbors. Rather than being silent, the United States should work with our allies in the region and the United Nations, while also using the full force of our diplomatic might to stop this injustice. Countries that disrespect international norms will be judged in the eyes of the world, and should be held accountable.

This is just one critical step we need to take to heal relationships in our own hemisphere--not only by renewing our focus on the region, but also by examining the policies we've embraced at home and abroad, some of which have diminished our standing with our closest neighbors. Our failure to enact meaningful immigration reform diminishes our moral high ground on this issue. No party can claim to be pro-family when its policies are ripping families apart.

Speaking out against the impending injustice against Haitians in the Dominican Republic is the first thing we can do to begin to reclaim our credibility and moral standing. I intend to express my concerns directly to Dominican and Haitian leaders in the coming days. We should exercise all our leverage as a key ally and leader in the region to address this crisis and the underlying causes of forced migration.