The United States isn’t the only nation in the Americas grappling with the challenges of immigration reform and the complexities of addressing undocumented people living within its borders. As U.S. lawmakers have learned, there is no simple solution or policy fix.
This issue has become front and center in the Dominican Republic, where a Constitutional Court ruling on citizenship sparked a heated debate among regional governments and civil societies, as well as among Dominican and Haitian communities in South Florida.
In fact, the challenges the Dominican Republic faces to abide by the ruling and implement a clear and transparent immigration policy are not much different than those confronting the United States.
Unfortunately, much of the debate about the Dominican Republic’s approach has been characterized by inaccurate or imprecise information. Rumors, which are untrue, abound of deportations and de-nationalizations (neither has happened).
Given all the disinformation circulating on this issue, we need to carefully examine what has and has not happened since the court ruling.
In September 2013, the highest court in the Dominican Republic on constitutional matters ruled that those living “in transit,” or those living in the country who cannot prove their legal status, will now be given the opportunity to normalize their immigration status.
The ruling is estimated to affect a sizable portion of the Dominican population that lacks documentation as well as undocumented people from more than 120 countries who are residing in the Dominican Republic, including a significant number of immigrants of Haitian descent.
In response to the ruling, the Dominican government created a “Regularization Plan” to positively improve the condition of these undocumented people. The plan provides for a temporary status that will lead to the acquisition of a permanent residency, a temporary residency or a non-resident visa, in accordance with each individual’s conditions.
Let me be clear: No one currently holding or entitled to legal, or rightful, Dominican nationality will be deprived of it.
By implementing this plan over the next 18 months, the government will be able to normalize the migratory status of around 435,000 people, allowing those who were previously stateless to acquire a legal status in the Dominican Republic.
In addition to the Regularization Plan, the Dominican government will soon submit a new law to the Congress, which will quickly open the path to citizenship for individuals who were born to undocumented foreigners in Dominican territory and have proven deep roots in the country.
The goal of this two-pronged initiative is to document and guarantee a legal status to each and every person living on Dominican soil, in a way that protects their fundamental rights.
The Dominican Republic has a long history of supporting its immigrant community, including providing access to free public services such as healthcare and education. The Dominican Republic’s government currently invests 18 percent of its healthcare budget to service the immigrant population. Approximately 54,000 immigrant children are registered in public schools throughout the country, without any need to provide any sort of documentation regardless of their legal status.
As this process moves forward, the government remains fully committed to guaranteeing these critical services to all persons within the Dominican Republic.
Earlier this month, officials from the Dominican Republic and Haiti met for a constructive and frank discussion of these issues. Our two countries, rich in commonalities stretching far beyond just sharing an island, are making progress toward a solution that not only recognizes the Dominican Republic’s sovereign right to determine its immigration and citizenship policies, but also safeguards the fundamental rights of all people of Haitian descent residing in the country.
Dominican and Haitian officials will meet again on Feb. 3 to continue the dialogue about a mutually beneficial immigration policy: one that is transparent and respectful of human rights and that registers both national and immigrant citizens.
This comprehensive reform is long overdue in the Dominican Republic. It will not only allow the Dominican Republic to meet its development challenges, but enhance the country’s ability to combat human trafficking and ensure the integrity of its territory.
This will benefit the island of Hispaniola and the region, and could serve as a roadmap for the United States and other countries that are facing similar issues.
Aníbal de Castro is the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States.