THE BLOG
07/07/2015 01:46 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2016

Statelessness: The Obama Administration's Faulty Moral Compass in the Dominican Republic

While Mr. Obama was having his "best week" in office, according to the mainstream media, the biggest blot on his time in office erupted in protest in South Florida over the Dominican Republic's drive to disenfranchise more than 200,000 people of Haitian descent and drive them into statelessness.

What is "Statelessness?"

Statelessness is when a country legally denies the legitimate existence of people who were born on that nation's soil because one or both of their parents are of another national, cultural and/or ethnic origin.

Minorities who were born on the same lands as the majority are denied birth certificates and other public documents which citizens use in their everyday lives.

Without citizenship, these people have no rights to have rights. They have no access to education, government services, or the ability to travel or even relocate to exit the no-man's land that the country of their birthplace has put them in.

Nations which engage in this non-genocidal cultural cleansing strip minorities of their citizenship. Their bureaucracies and military use a number of options to marginalize them: Exclusion from services, denial of housing, forcible expulsion, and systemic murder and intimidation to drive displaced populations into neighboring countries or into camps or internment centers on their borders.

These minorities end up in limbo. They cannot go home, and they cannot go to countries where they were not born, which legally reject them as citizens as well.

Statelessness.

The United Nations estimates there are about 10m stateless people. Other estimates range as high as 15m. Of course the numbers are mostly speculative, since the people who find themselves without a country also find themselves generally living in the shadows, outside of the realm of people who count them, or even consider their existence.

About one-third of the stateless are believed to be children, who are often the target of these purges, because they were born in the nation which is trying to rid itself of minorities with a birthright claim to live alongside "native" peoples. Children, who have no control of where they were born are the most vulnerable population to exploitation.

People who become displaced in this way are far more likely to find themselves picked up by the human trafficking industry, and sold into slavery as has happened in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.

The stateless have no PAC, no wealthy political donor class looking out for them. The United Nations, Amnesty International and several small projects to build global awareness of their plight do not make their plight as a top priority.

With no oil, and no large base of Americans who push on the government to act, the State Department has paid lip service to the issue.

Statelessness In Our Backyard

The most recent round of xenophobic cultural purification, or perhaps a financial balance sheet adjustment, has been happening in the Dominican Republic, more famed for its beaches, ballgames, boozing and binging than it is for its rabid racial fears of the country on the other side of the island which they share: Haiti.

In the Dominican Republic 210,000 people, or about 1.8% of the country's estimated total population, may become stateless in the next few weeks.

The Dominicans used to grant citizenship to all children born in the country. It was Jus soli, birthright citizenship. The one exception? Children born to foreign diplomats and foreigners "in transit," people who were in the country on their way to another country when a baby was born.

In 2004 the migration law changed. The government put more people into the "foreigners in transit" category. Non-residents, such as undocumented Haitian migrants, no matter how long they had been living in the country, were now included.

The government then refused to supply certified copies of birth certificates to Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants. The government was sued in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005. Yean and Bosico v. Dominican Republic generated a landmark decision when the court found that the Dominican Republic's denial of a birth certificate to two girls born to Dominican mothers with Haitian fathers was racial discrimination.

That didn't deter the Dominican Central Electoral Council (JCE). In 2007, they passed Resolution 12. Government workers were instructed to deny citizenship documentation for all children of illegal immigrant parents.

In 2010, the politicians changed their constitution, eliminating birthright citizenship in the Dominican Republic. The change was supposed to apply only to those born after 2010.

Then, in 2013, the Constitutional Court got involved. Their Resolution TC 0168/13 denied Dominican nationality retroactively.

The search for "illegals" now included anyone who was born after 1929 without at least one parent of Dominican blood, using the expanded "in transit" status to identify more people of Haitian descent for deportation. The court ordered detailed reviews of their civil registry back to 1929.

Electoral authorities there refused to issue identity documents to 40,000 people of Haitian descent based on those changes at that time. In real terms, that meant fewer children born to these people enrolled in schools, and that organizations from government agencies to banks which require documentation to do business could not do anything for those who became effectively stateless.

The situation is now moving towards the expulsion phase. The government has been engaged in the development of deportation centers and the acquisition of buses to move suspected illegal immigrants out of the country. According to The Nation:

"General Rubén Darío Paulino Sem, the army official in charge of the deportation, announced expulsion would begin on Thursday, June 18. Sem has been overseeing the construction of seven concentration camps--which he calls "shelters," or "centros de acogida"--where Dominicans suspected of being of Haitian descent will be housed until a "final evaluation" can be made."

Since mid-June Dominican authorities have given "native" Dominicans of Haitian descent, and those who emigrated to the D.R. before 2011, the mandate to register themselves with the government as migrant workers or face deportation.

Inconsistent deadlines have been issued by various agencies of the government. One edict said they must file by June. Another said by August.

Even before that registration period has finished, though, people are being snatched off the streets for deportation to Haiti without due process. Those who do try to comply with the law and register for citizenship find out quickly that the system is not built to work. Those who wait to register are caught up in a bureaucratic system that is highly corrupt. Bribes to get papers are common. They are harassed while on line to register with everything from insults and threats to pepper spray by hispanic Dominicans.

The Why of Dominican Statelessness

Culturally the two sides of the same island, French black Haiti and the Spanish hispanic Dominican Republic, have clashed throughout their existence. Economically the two countries are polar opposites as well: The Dominican Republic is one of Latin America's wealthiest nations, and Haiti is perennially one of its poorest.

Haitian immigration has a troubled history in the Dominican Republic. In 1937, at the urging of a German advisor, the government engaged in an ethnic cleansing which killed thousands of Haitians.

Yet the Dominican Republic's large gross domestic product (GDP) is owed in large part to the huge pool of cheap labor that exists across the border. 85% of their migrant workers are Haitian. They have been the driving force of exports of sugar, textiles, and the construction boom that created the country's booming tourism industry.

The change in source of income is part of the problem. The Dominican Republic is becoming a service economy that needs less and less unskilled cheap labor. Tourism by American vacationers drives two-thirds of that increase. American money is at least 5% of their GDP.

"Dialing out" Dominicans of Haitian descent, some of the poorest of the poor, would doctor the D.R.'s books with the World Bank with a 2% bump up in living standards, at least on paper.

The D.R. suffers from serious income inequality: The poorest half of the population receives less than one-fifth of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while the richest 10% enjoys nearly 40%. According to the World Bank, 41.4% of the Dominican Republic's population lives below the poverty line. The average citizen makes just $5,950 a year. Roughly 85% of the Dominican Republic's migrant workforce are Haitian.

As agricultural and unskilled labor decreases, deporting Dominicans who aren't hispanic is a quick, dirty fix to poverty numbers which the D.R. must be mindful of in its financial obligations with the World Bank as a "developing" country. They have no financial obligations to people who are not legal citizens.

The cost of deportation is minimal. There is little that the Haitian government, crippled by decades of civil war and the devastation of a massive earthquake, can do to stop it. Dominican-borns can be sent into Haiti where they still will have no rights, but it will not be the Dominican Republic's financial burden.

In Haiti, there will be no welcome. No aid. They cannot leave the country as they have no passport, or other legal document to grant them transit. Many turn to smugglers to move themselves and their family out of this political limbo, and find themselves caught in human trafficking rings that deliver them into slavery.

Even if a stateless person were to make it to the United States, they risk many years in jail without hope of release. A stateless person awaiting deportation who has no place to which they can be deported may find themselves stuck in a U.S. detention center indefinitely, or sent back to a country of origin where they escaped slavery only to become enslaved once more.

What Can Be Done?

The Obama Administration would have to turn the Dominican Republic into an agenda issue, and not a patronage destination at the State Department.

President Obama would have to bring his Ambassador to heel, and staff the embassy with more heavy-hitters in human rights issues. His point man in the Dominican Republic is Ambassador James "Wally" Brewster, Jr. a political appointee who speaks limited Spanish and has little diplomatic credentials but who was a whoppingly good fundraiser for the Democratic Party. His recent spat with the Dominican government over LGBT tourism, threatening to pull support of US tourist dollars there, was seen as toothless by the government.

Dominican President Medina and the power structure of the nation are committed to his form of "final solution" for Dominicans of Haitian origin. He has has drawn a line in the beach sand for the rest of the world:

"I want to make it clear also that no other nation in the world, nor any international organization, can demand that the Dominican Republic make sacrifices to its migratory system, or any other sovereign right, beyond what is ordered by the laws and the constitution," Medina said.

It's emotional rhetoric and completely faulty logic. The United States has huge influence on the political situation there. The Dominican Republic had a $63.9B GDP in 2014. Their economy is highly dependent upon the U.S. since approximately half of the D.R.'s exports come to America. Add in tourism and services, which now lead the economy, and that is sufficient leverage to have a meaningful discussion between President Obama and President Medina.

Yet, at a recent meeting of the Summit of the Americas, Amnesty International's petition to President Obama to speak on the issue fell on deaf ears.

Why Obama Should Expend the Political Capital

Barack Obama began his political career as an advocate for the voiceless, and an organizer to empower those without money or means to stand up and be heard. Dealing with the statelessness issue is not an area where he needs congressional support to turn up the heat on President Medina.

For too long, the Obama Administration's foreign policy has been locked in the wake of the Reagan-Bush years, mopping up the mess of the disastrous oil adventurism that was our core foreign policy for decades.

A student of history, Mr. Obama has also been risk-averse in his engagement in moral policy after the blowback on humanitarian missions of the Carter and Clinton White Houses.

While there is no "win" in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and ISIS will be the next president's problem, addressing the scourge of Statelessness, particularly in our own back yard, the Dominican Republic, is something which is both consistent with President Obama's life mission and with improving the United States' woeful history of only addressing human rights when there is something in it for us.

Expend the political capital, Mr. President. Engage President Medina and end the scourge of statelessness, which is nothing more than "genocide lite."

My shiny two.