Why Is Obama Silent on the Dominican Deportation Crisis?

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Milene Monime, 16, holding her two month old son Jefferson Thezan, stands along with other Haitian migrants just deported from Dominican Republic, at the border crossing in Malpasse, Haiti, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. 

The horror of statelessness, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1958, entails a "total destruction of an individual's status in organized society. It is a form of punishment more primitive than torture." It is also a reality that hundreds of thousands of Haitians and their descendants in the Dominican Republic must now face as the Dominican government moves to strip them of citizenship. And yet, despite the considerable leverage the United States holds in the DR, the Obama administration has been largely silent on the impending human rights catastrophe.

Nearly two years ago, a high court in the Dominican Republic ruled that anyone born after 1929 to undocumented people were not Dominican citizens. The ruling stands in sharp violation to Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” The high court ruling leaves at least 200,000 Haitians and their descendants with no citizenship and at risk of being deported to Haiti—a country many of them have never even been to.

Adding insult to injury, Haiti is not prepared to handle the impending refugee crisis. After a devastating 2010 earthquake toppled buildings, killed hundreds of thousands, and left more than one million Haitians displaced, Haiti has been struggling to rebuild. Thousands remain in what were supposed to be temporary shelters, unemployment is still high, and the status of the country’s infrastructure went from bad to worse. Thousands of people fleeing the Dominican Republic will likely create a separate humanitarian crisis.

By all accounts, discrimination against Haitians is pervasive in the DR. According to the most recent State Department report on human rights in the country, released this summer, Haitians and their descendants are routinely denied “basic education, health, and documentation services.” Persons of “darker” complexion are also denied “access or services in banks, service in restaurants and stores, entry into nightclubs, enrollment in private schools, and birth registration in hospitals.”

The report also called institutional discrimination, like the 2013 high court ruling on citizenship, the country’s “most serious human rights problem.” In other words, the United States has no problem acknowledging the scope of the humanitarian crisis faced by Haitians and their descendants in Haiti. And yet beyond the State Department report, the Obama administration has been largely silent on the crisis, and largely unwilling to intervene. When asked about the United States’ position on the impending crisis in the Dominican Republic, a spokesperson for the State Department referred only back to this report.

A few sympathetic members of Congress such as Stephen F. Lynch in Boston, Frederica S. Wilson in Miami, and Yvette D. Clark in New York have released statements showing concern for the citizenship crisis; all three cities have sizable Haitian and Dominican populations. But, as the issue has unfolded and expanded, the Obama administration doesn’t appear to be doing much to criticize its ally.

While the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has been strained at best, and bloody at worst, the United States and the Dominican Republic enjoy excellent relations. The United States considers the Dominican Republic an important partner in hemispheric affairs because it is the largest economy and second-largest country in terms of population in the Caribbean.

In fiscal year 2012, U.S. assistance to the Dominican Republic totaled $30.1 million and the United States is also the Dominican Republic’s most important trade partner. Goods exported to the Dominican in 2013 totaled $7.2 billion, with $1.1 billion of that being agricultural products like soybean meal, wheat, and dairy products. With such close ties, the United States should be able to address human rights in the Dominican Republic—unless there are economic interests at play.

The Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) is the first trade agreement between the U.S. and smaller developing countries. As with other free trade agreements, CAFTA-DR has faced criticism that the deal only helps corporate interests in the U.S., and harms both American workers and workers abroad.

The sugar cane industry in the Dominican Republic is massive—the United States buys 200,000 tons of sugar from Dominican cane growers—and many of the cane cutters who toil in the sun for minimal pay are Haitian immigrants. While the CAFTA-DR agreement requires signatories to improve their labor conditions, a 2011 investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found that the Dominican government was failing to protect workers.

The DOL pushed for reform within Congress, but proposals went nowhere, and it’s not hard to see why. Four wealthy brothers, Alfonso, Jose, Andres, and Alexander Fanjul, are heavyweights in the U.S. and Dominican Republic, owning sugar companies in both countries. They are also among the sugar industry’s top political donors and biggest spenders on lobbyists. The industry as a whole donated more than $5 million to congressional candidates in 2014—more than twice the amount they gave in 2002.

And that’s not all. In an attempt to wield even more influence within the United States government, the Center for Economic Policy and Research found that the Dominican Republic spent nearly $1 million on a Washington-based public relations firm, Steptoe & Johnson, a few months after the 2013 ruling. Lobbyists for the PR firm distributed talking points to members of Congress, describing the new policy as “modern and transparent.”

“The Dominican government itself has put together a very, very effective and strategic PR machine,” says France Francois, co-coordinator of the Rights For All in the Dominican Republic, “The lobbyists have spent a lot of time on the Hill, misinforming Congress.”

“The Dominican Republic has been able to frame this as an immigration policy,” continued Francois, “when it’s actually a human rights issue.” This shift in perception has probably allowed some members of Congress to equate it to the similar immigration debate happening in the United States. “But, it’s very different from the immigration debate here,” Francois explained, “because the United States would never strip people of immigrant descent of their citizenship.”

A combination of economic interests and a PR campaign has left the United States with almost nothing to say about a humanitarian crisis happening just off American shores. “It really puts the U.S. in a position to decide if their economic interests are more important than human rights,” says Francois.

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