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Diplomacy in Action

Statelessness and the Dominican Republic

David M. Robinson
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Georgetown Law School
Washington, DC
October 26, 2011


Date: 10/26/2011 Description: Acting Assistant Secretary Dave Robinson giving remarks - State Dept Image

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important event. The issues we're dealing with here are tough. They involve fundamental rights that everyone recognizes and embraces, on some level, but that at the same time are so laden with emotion and history that taking action to protect them, or even to talk about them constructively, can be very difficult. So I want to congratulate the organizers for hosting this forum, the panelists for their courage in sharing their stories, and I especially want to thank Ambassador Anibal de Castro of the Dominican Republic for joining us today.

At the outset, it is important to recognize the close and constructive friendship the United States shares with the Dominican Republic. It’s a bond that goes beyond the usual markers we use to measure the strengths of our international relationships. It goes beyond trade and aid and exchanges. In fact, as we’ve all seen, it’s a bond that all the way to the World Series. Right now, Albert Pujols is not just the most famous Dominican in the United States. His performance in Game 3 of the World Series put him in the record books right beside two great American icons: Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson. Three home runs in a single World Series game. Five for six at bat. Fourteen total bases. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to understand what that means. For well over a hundred years, baseball has been one of our cultural definitions. It’s America’s game. Troops played it during the Civil War. Generations of American kids grew up playing Little League and dreaming of the Majors. And today it’s the game that has been heavily influenced for years, by breathtakingly skilled players from the Dominican Republic like Albert Pujols. And as Americans, and baseball fans, we welcome this deep, mutually reinforcing, cultural connection between the United States and the Dominican Republic. In fact, it’s an affirmation of who we are as an open, dynamic, evolving society. Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols. Look at the picture. See how the U.S. is evolving. See how we’re becoming more inclusive. See how we’re becoming better as a society.

Now, at the same time we acknowledge the deep ties that bind our two countries, we also recall the enormous generosity the Dominican people and their government showed to Haitians injured or displaced by the terrible earthquake in 2010. Dominicans were among the first on the scene to provide assistance, and they continue working to support Haitians still in need, in the awful days and weeks after the earthquake, when our TV screens were filled with the tragic images of death and destruction. Generosity and compassion pushed aside divisive political issues and reaffirmed for a time what’s truly important. And the United States was pleased to support that effort. The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration contributed more than $15 million to support relief activities on both sides of the border, making sure that communities that reached out to help those in need were themselves assisted with medical, nutritional and other services. The border remained open for those who needed safe haven. The Dominican Republic became the main staging ground and thoroughfare for relief into Haiti. It was a proud moment of Dominican political and humanitarian leadership, and we should see it still as a beacon of hope for the future. But as we recall the generosity and compassion, and as we look to the future, we have to acknowledge the extraordinarily complex challenges in the Dominican/Haitian relationship, challenges with deep historical roots. And statelessness is obviously one of them.

You know, frankly, it seems odd talking about statelessness in 2011, in our highly connected, globalized environment. Statelessness sounds like an old fashioned issue, like piracy, a problem that the modern world should have solved eons ago. But like piracy, we haven’t. Statelessness is still with us, and it takes an absolutely terrible toll on people and on societies.

Just take a second and think about the personal implications of being stateless. You have no government to provide you basic protection or essential services. In fact, far from relying on government to protect you, you only hope that government will overlook you, leave you alone, not molest you. You are a citizen of nowhere and your residence is in the seams and shadows of illegality. You have no right to vote. You may not be able to register your marriage or the birth of your child. You have no identity documents, so you cannot work or travel freely and you may not even be able to open a bank account, rent an apartment, call the police or go to the hospital in an emergency. And because you don't officially exist, you are highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including being trafficked for labor or sex. Finally, when you die, your death may not be documented in any official way and you may not be able to bequeath to your loved ones any property you may have been lucky enough to acquire. You are a marginal person. No matter your gifts, your hopes, your personal achievements, you are one of society’s problems, not one of its members. “We wish you weren’t here”, even if here is where you were born. Even if here is the only home you ever knew.

Now, for those of us who have never experienced this kind of anonymity or abandonment, the thought of it is horrifying. But the United Nations estimates that for as many as 12 million people worldwide, this shadow life is their everyday reality. 12 million marginalized people. 12 million people that belong… nowhere. This year we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It seems an appropriate time to shine a light into the shadows, to take this old fashioned sounding problem and consign it once and for all, to the pages of history.

The United States regards statelessness as both a human rights and a humanitarian problem. It hinders national prospects for democratization, development, and stability, and it runs roughshod over respect for individual rights and simple human dignity. U.S. diplomats around the world advocate with other governments to amend nationality laws that create or contribute to statelessness. In fact, Secretary Clinton is leading our efforts to combat discrimination against women in nationality laws. In addition, we are the single largest contributor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency holding the mandate to protect stateless people, contributing over $691 million to their budget this past fiscal year. We view statelessness as a problem that can and should be solved, and we believe there are solutions that recognize every sovereign nation's right to control its borders and its internal laws, but at the same time, that respect basic human rights and that protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

In our hemisphere, and especially in the Caribbean, statelessness for Haitians and persons of Haitian descent is pernicious and tragic. The plight of undocumented Haitian migrants living in limbo because they simply cannot access civil registry documents long pre-dates the 2010 earthquake and is largely the responsibility of the Government of Haiti to solve. We are prepared to help, but the Government of Haiti needs to fix its dysfunctional civil registry system and strengthen its consular function throughout the Caribbean. Without those advances, thousands of Haitian migrants will continue to suffer de facto statelessness simply because the documents to which they have a recognized and unencumbered right are simply out of reach. In the meantime, they suffer the same ills as all stateless people: Unable to legally travel or work, unable to register births, marriages or deaths, and unable to come out of the shadows.

The Dominican Republic, with its efforts to modernize its own civil registry process, can serve as a model or guide for Haiti and other countries in the region, and we hope it will.

Although there is a caveat. There is another form of Haitian statelessness that is proving just, or even more, complicated to solve: The dilemma of Dominican-born individuals of Haitian ancestry that already have been disowned by the country of their birth, the Dominican Republic, or are in danger of being disowned.

The United States is proudly and self-consciously a nation of immigrants. We embrace the hyphen: Irish-American, German-American, Haitian-American, Dominican-American. It goes on and on. We recognize that it is not our ethnic background that makes us American. We understand, and we cherish the understanding, that we do not have to wash away our ethnicity to be fully and completely Americans with all the rights and responsibilities our nationality implies. What we don't understand is why it is so difficult to be Haitian-Dominican – fully completely and proudly a citizen of the Dominican Republic, but of Haitian descent. What we don't understand is why history and historical tension should be permitted to control the future rather than explain the past.

In that context, citizenship and nationality reform in the Dominican Republic is both promising, as I said a moment ago, but also troubling. The new migration regulations signed by President Fernandez last week to partially implement the 2004 Migration Law are a step in the right direction, and we applaud the Dominican Government for the development of these very important regulations. They may allow for better migration management. And we remain hopeful that the Dominican Government will move forward on developing a National Regularization plan, as required by the 2004 Migration Law. The plan is aimed at granting varying degrees of legal status to eligible "non-residents" of the Dominican Republic who have resided in the country for a significant amount of time. Done right, it will enhance protection of many people by preventing arbitrary deportation and providing for the right to work. Done right, it may be a light into the shadows and allow people to lead normal lives with confidence that their rights will be protected. And, toward that end, we strongly encourage our Dominican friends to establish transparent, fair and reasonable standards and processes for granting status and for appealing status decisions. We also encourage the government to establish transparent and fair processes for legally removing people when status cannot be granted.

But that is not the whole story. The troubling part of the new regulations is that, while some people may be gaining protection, others likely will lose it. Retroactive application of the new Constitution 's citizenship provisions will deny many Dominican citizens of their rights, will deny them their nationality. Retroactive application of the new regulations may strip citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent who were born in the Dominican Republic before January 26, 2010, and who were previously recognized by law and by the Dominican Government as Dominican citizens and granted documentation to prove it. This is not a step forward. It is a step backward, deeper into the shadows, and we encourage the government to reconsider its application.

There should be no mistake, no misunderstanding. We know that every sovereign nation has the right to change its constitution and to enforce its own laws. The United States has amended its constitution 27 times and we are in the middle of a vigorous debate about immigration and immigration enforcement. So we recognize that these are highly complex and sensitive issues, and we have been in almost constant diplomatic contact with our Dominican colleagues. Secretary Clinton, Under Secretary Otero, former Assistant Secretary Valenzuela, and former Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz all have raised our concerns during meetings with Dominican officials and on visits to the country. Congressional delegations, our Ambassador in Santo Domingo, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees all have reiterated these concerns. And we're speaking about it here today.

We’re raising it because friends speak frankly to each other, and our friendship, as I said goes deeper than most. In fact, sometimes I think it leads to identity confusion.

When I was visa officer serving my first tour in Santo Domingo, a visa applicant came to my window, saying he wanted to go to New York. Like most consular officers, I asked a visa applicant whether he had ever been to the United States, to see whether he had stayed too long or abided by the terms of his visa. He assured me he had never been to the United States, “No, Señor Consul.” He slid his passport under the window. I was puzzled then when I saw the entry stamps in his passport, which I pointed out to him. With full sincerity, he replied that he had never been to the United States -- he had been to Miami. I don’t know whatever happened to that young man, but I sort of understand his confusion.

After all, we are the Dominican Republic’s largest trading partner, accounting for about half of both its imports and exports. We pursue a range of initiatives together, the Pathways to Prosperity ministerials, the Open Government Partnership, and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, among others. Remittances from the 1.4 million Dominicans living in the United States total approximately 6% of the Dominican GDP. And youngsters in Santo Domingo grow up playing baseball and dreaming of glory in the Majors.

So as a friend, as a close friend, the United States is encouraging the Dominican Republic to embrace the hyphen; to address statelessness, particularly of Dominicans of Haitian descent, with the generosity and compassion we know so well of the Dominican people; and to enforce its new laws and regulations with transparency and fairness. And who knows, at the end of the day, you just might get an Albert Pujols out of the deal.

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