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What Happened When a Nation Erased Birthright Citizenship

(Source: theatlantic.com)

Garrett Epps: The citizenship clause means what it says

Even that maneuver was not enough. Under all international or national norms, the new provision could only apply to people born after the new constitution came into force. But Dominican nationalists were more concerned about adults than newborns. Fortunately for them, the new loophole had a loophole: a new “constitutional tribunal”—separate from the existing supreme court—given the “definitive and irrevocable” right to interpret the constitution.

In one of its first acts, the tribunal justices—picked by former President Leonel Fernández and a small group of other leaders—took up the languishing case of a Dominican of Haitian descent named Juliana Deguis Pierre. She had sued when officials in her town refused to give her a national ID card—needed to vote and access social services—because, she said, of her dark skin and Haitian last name. Instead of ruling on whether she had been discriminated against, in 2013 the tribunal declared that Pierre should never have had citizenship in the first place because her parents didn’t have sufficient documentation to prove residency when she was born. Then it went even further, ruling that all those who could not prove that their parents had been legal residents when they were born—going all the way back to 1929, when the “in transit” exception was added to the constitution—were not citizens. Those affected were ordered to register with the government as foreigners by June 17, 2015.

Again, this order was clearly aimed at people of Haitian descent. Hundreds of thousands who had been Dominican citizens all their lives suddenly risked being rendered stateless and eligible for deportation.

It was obvious to human-rights groups, the United Nations, and pretty much anyone watching that the Dominican government was doing an end run around some of the most important principles of the rule of law—namely, that you can’t change the rules and then go around punishing people for having violated them in the past. The tribunal bent over backward to argue that nothing had changed, while taking 147 pages to explain the new situation.

A fundamental fact that sometimes gets missed in discussions about laws and court rulings is that they’re just words on paper. What those words signify to the people they govern is often just as important as what the law actually says. For instance, the original 1865 jus soli, or “place-of-birth,” birthright-citizenship provision in the Dominican Republic—enacted three years before the U.S. emerged from its Civil War with a Fourteenth Amendment and jus soli provision of its own—signaled a vision of the new Dominican state as a place open to just about everyone. As the historian Anne Eller has written, the provision came in a moment of heightened international cooperation when Haitians, who had thrown off French colonialism and slavery more than 60 years earlier, helped Dominicans win their final and lasting independence from Spain.

More Info: theatlantic.com

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