How One Howard University Professor Secures Citizenship for Hundreds of Displaced Haitians in the Dominican Republic

December 13, 2017
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By: Marlana Edwards

Howard University Professor, Dr. Nikongo Bnikongo, recently returned from an eight-day trip to the Dominican Republic. Nikongo, who teaches African American studies, did not go to the the Dominican Republic to enjoy the sun and the sand, but instead, to assist hundreds of displaced Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in filling out the necessary paperwork for obtaining citizenship in the Dominican Republic.

With the help of translators, lawyers, and embassy representatives, Nikongo continues to help hundreds of Dominicans of Haitian descent to procure their birth certificates and marriage licenses so that they can apply for citizenship in the Dominican Republic. Nikongo also helps Dominicans of Haitian descent to fill out citizenship documents and visa applications.

“I help Dominicans of Haitian descent to complete the Residency Rights Forms that they need to get an identification card,” said Nikongo, “without identification cards, they have no access to social services, health care, or employment outside of the sugar cane fields. Also, they risk deportation.”

In September of 2013, the Dominican nationalist discourse achieved the promulgation of legislation that retroactively stripped away the citizenship of foreigners, most of whom are Haitian-Dominicans born in the Dominican Republic from Haitian immigrant parents. This legislation causes anyone who does not have personal identification, or a parent with a access to a Dominican birth certificate to become an undocumented immigrant, and to become a candidate for deportation.

Previously, Dominican citizenship was issued to anyone born in the Dominican Republic, regardless of the parents’ citizenship status. Although the recent legislation affected various immigrant groups in the Dominican Republic, it primarily and directly led to the deportation and disenfranchisement of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Nikongo works specifically with batey communities for Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic. Batey communities are plantation-like communities that developed in the beginning of the 20th century in order to accommodate demands for temporary migrant labor in the Dominican Republic. As the sugarcane industry in the Dominican Republic evolved and expanded, batey communities became permanent communities for Haitian migrants, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and Dominican sugar cane workers. Currently, there are about 425 batey communities in the Dominican Republic, with a total population of about 200,000. Batey communities exhibit high levels of unemployment, illiteracy, lack of documentation, chronic malnutrition and a prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

Nikongo focuses on helping the residents of batey communities to obtain citizenship because most of the residents in batey communities do, in fact, qualify for citizenship in the Dominican Republic, but do not have access to the resources and education necessary for filling out citizenship documents.

Nikongo helps the residents of batey communities by locating birth certificates, by translating and completing Residency Rights forms, by transporting pregnant mothers to hospitals so that their newborns can immediately receive birth certificates, and by financing the purchases of identification cards for eligible applicants who are unable to afford the fees.

“Most of the families in the bateyes have been in the Dominican Republic for generations,” said Nikongo, “all they’ve ever known is the Dominican Republic. They have no ties to Haiti anymore.”

Elena Altagracia Bautista acts as a tour guide for Nikongo whenever he comes to the Dominican Republic. Bautista is a young hairdresser who is familiar with most of the batey communities in La Romana, Dominican Republic because she travels from one community to another, daily, for her clients. Nikongo helped to fund Bautista’s education and continues to help her pursue a path to citizenship in the Dominican Republic.

“My father was born in Haiti, but my mother was born in the Dominican Republic, and so was I,” said Bautista, “I don’t know Haitian creole, I don’t know any of my family members in Haiti. The Dominican Republic is my home. The professor helps me to get citizenship here because this is all that I have ever known.”

Nikongo will return to the batey communities in the Dominican Republic in March of 2018. He plans to bring a team of students, translators, and social advocates in order to secure citizenship for more Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Nikongo will return to the batey communities in the Dominican Republic in March of 2018. He plans to bring a team of students, translators, and social advocates in order to secure citizenship for more Dominicans of Haitian descent.

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