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Dominican Republic Shows U.S. What Not to Do on Immigration

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Imagine waking up to learn that you are no longer recognized as a citizen of the country in which you were born -- the only country you have ever called home. You are suddenly stripped of your most basic liberties and are unable to engage in any facet of life that requires identity documents, including applying for a job, obtaining a driver's license, opening a bank account, pursuing higher education, marrying and voting for government officials.

As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard earlier this week, this inconceivable scenario has become a reality for tens of thousands of Dominicans. In September 2013, the Dominican Republic's Constitutional Court ruled to retroactively revoke the citizenship of individuals born inside the country to foreign parents or those who are unable to prove their parents' regular migration status. The ruling will primarily impact Dominicans of Haitian descent, a group that has long been treated as an underclass. This decision further institutionalizes historic and widespread racial biases and ethnic discrimination experienced by Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic. The commission, which already has publicly condemned the decision, heard Dominicans of Haitian descent describe their struggle to retain citizenship and participate as equal members of society.

The Dominican Republic has long relied upon Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian migrant workers to supply cheap labor as sugarcane farmers, hotel workers, construction workers and around-the-clock domestic workers -- positions characterized by rampant employer abuses, including meager wages, precarious working conditions and weak legal protections. In light of the court ruling, these already vulnerable workers are now more susceptible to exploitation and rights violations, given the threat of denationalization and a heightened fear of deportation. Beyond intimidation and abuse, the court ruling carries several other implications for impacted workers and their families, including denied access to social security, health care, pension funds and tax-supported social programs to which they have contributed over the course of a lifetime.

Here in the United States, noncitizen workers face similar injustices as a result of their immigration status and our broken immigration system. Wage theft, hazardous work conditions and uncompensated workplace injuries are among the most common abuses. Workers who attempt to assert their rights and challenge mistreatment routinely experience employer intimidation and immigration-related threats. Consequently, employers have an incentive to hire vulnerable workers with fewer protections, which ultimately leads to depressed wages and working conditions for all. For this reason, it is imperative to avoid creating two classes of workers by means of denying citizenship. That is why America's labor movement continues to push for immigration reform in the United States that guarantees equal access to fundamental rights for all workers, regardless of nationality, race or any other factor. The AFL-CIO supports these rights for workers around the world and therefore urges the Dominican Republic to immediately desist from its denationalization efforts, comply with international human rights obligations and recognize the birthright citizenship of all Dominicans of foreign descent.