How Does It Feel to Be Stateless?

Altagracia Jean Joseph

In September 2013, the Dominican Republic passed TC168/13, a law that permanently annulled the citizenship of children born to “undocumented parents,” going back to 1929. This law directly impacted the children of Haitian immigrants who have been brought into to the Dominican Republic as laborers for the past 80 years, a practice initiated by the Dominican state-sponsored sugar industry. Hundreds of thousands of people of Haitian descent are now facing the inability to go to school, obtain work, travel, vote, and exercise other civil rights. While President Danilo Medina’s government responded to international outcry with a May 2014 amendment allowing some to “naturalize” and reclaim their Dominican nationality, many feel that they were given false hope. Meanwhile the country’s board of elections, which distributes identity cards, has begun to implement a biometric system which may permanently link individuals to their designated citizenship status. Where are the denationalized people in the Dominican Republic? What are they experiencing each day as they attempt to navigate the current limitations on their rights? How does one survive without citizenship rights in the country in which they were born?

Altagracia Jean Joseph is a 29 year old law student and human rights activist who is one of the Dominican Republic’s most outspoken youth leaders in the movement to defend citizenship rights for people of Haitian descent. Born in Batey Esperanza, one of the oldest “company towns” constructed to keep Haitian laborers close to the sugar plantations where they worked, Altagracia has organized with cane workers to improve their opportunities and living conditions. She has also worked as a community health educator, fighting the spread of malaria, dengue fever, malnutrition, and sexually-transmitted disease in these communities, where the government provides little or no public healthcare.

Over the past decade, Altagracia and others have fought legal battles to prove their citizenship while their government has moved to denationalize hundreds of thousands of children born to Haitian immigrants. Altagracia is currently a leader of the campaign “Soy Dominicano Como Tu” (I am Dominican, Like You), and has collaborated with several Dominican human rights groups, including Centro Bonó, Movimiento Unidos de Mujeres Dominicano Haitiana (MUDHA), and The Socio-Cultural Movement for Haitian Workers (MOSCTHA) to respond to this crisis. From 2013-2014, she was a weekly correspondent with an international Haitian community radio program, Lakou New York, helping to keep the Haitian diaspora informed about the ongoing challenges faced by her community and build transnational ties.

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