Catholic News Service photo
Cardinal Sean O'Malley
Catholic News Service photo
Cardinal Sean O'Malley
BOSTON — Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston is urging action on a citizenship controversy that has strained relations between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola.

In a Dec. 16 letter to the Dominican Republic's ambassador to United States, Anibal de Castro Rodriguez, Cardinal O'Malley called on the government and people of the Dominican Republic to reject a high court decision that could render hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless.

On Sept. 23, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that children born to undocumented immigrants since 1929 would no longer be considered citizens.

"At Christmastime we relive the events of Christ's life, beginning with the Holy Family's search for lodging in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn. It is my hope that at this Christmas season, the government and people of the Dominican Republic will reject these unjust rulings that cause so much pain and suffering," the cardinal said.

"Every country has the right to control its own boundaries, but no one has the right to trample people's dignity and diminish their humanity," he continued.

According to a report on the ruling by the Center for Migration Studies of New York, prior to 2010 the Dominican Constitution granted automatic citizenship to anyone born the country, except the children of diplomats and those whose parents were considered to be "in transit." "In transit" was interpreted to mean staying in country for 10 days for fewer.

However, according to the center, the "in transit" exception was often broadly applied by Dominican officials to deny children of undocumented Haitian immigrants an official birth certificate, which is a prerequisite for exercising a number of civil and economic rights, including being married, registering for college, buying or selling property, obtaining a passport or registering the birth of one's own child.

The 2004 General Law on Migration officially defined the "in transit" exception as including the children of all non-residents, including undocumented immigrants. Then, in 2010, the country approved a new constitution that stated that a child would receive automatic citizenship only if at least one parent was already a Dominican citizen.

In its September ruling, which has been widely condemned by international and human rights organizations, the court found that the new standard could be applied retroactively to 1929.

"It is estimated that 200,000 Dominican people of Haitian descent, including many who have had no real connection with Haiti for several generations will be affected," Cardinal O'Malley said. "To be a person without a state, 'a man without a country,' makes it nearly impossible to study, to get a decent job, to acquire insurance, to contribute to a pension fund, to get married legally, to open bank accounts and even to travel in or out of one's own country of origin."

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., in a Dec. 4 interview with Catholic News Service, said ethnic Haitians in the Dominican Republic have been "integrated into society. ... It isn't a clear-cut case of illegal workers," he added. "They've been in there for four generations, practically."

The Haitian-Dominicans, Bishop DiMarzio said, "are not undocumented. They're born there. They're citizens, and they're having that taken away from them. ... Since they've been declared noncitizens, what do they do? They're stateless people. If they go back to Haiti, the Haitian government. doesn't have to give them citizenship automatically because  they weren't born there."

Bishop DiMarzio asked, "Will they be sent back to Haiti, which has been in a distressed situation even before the (2010) earthquake?"

Workers, he said, "have rights -- human rights. If they're working, they should be given some kind of status that's permanent and stable for the sake of their families," making an analogy to the DREAM Act, which would do much the same for the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. "Family separation can be a result" of the court decision, said Bishop DiMarzio, a member of the U.S. bishops' migration committee. "That's why the church is keenly interested in this issue."

Healing the historic divide between the two countries, which Cardinal O'Malley described in his letter as being motivated by racism, will not come without struggle and sacrifice.

"The example of leaders like (the Rev.) Martin Luther King and (former South African) President (Nelson) Mandela points to the kind of resolve and humanity that is required to rid our world of the spiritual disease of racism," the cardinal said.

"I pray that your leaders will have the wisdom and courage to redress these injustices that are being perpetrated on your own people," he added.

It was reported Dec. 17 that Haitian President Michel Martelly and Dominican President Danilo Medina have agreed to establish a joint commission to continue talks on the issue that had broken down in November.