How One Howard Professor Is Securing Citizenship for Displaced Haitians in the Dominican Republic

On December 1st, 2017, Howard University Professor, Dr. Nikongo Bnikongo, 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 completing the necessary paperwork for obtaining citizenship in the Dominican Republic.

With the help of translators, lawyers, and embassy representatives, Nikongo assisted 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 helped 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,” he continued.

In September of 2013, nationalist discourse in the country led to the ruling called La Sentencia (168-13), which retroactively stripped away the citizenship of foreigners, most of whom are Haitian-Dominicans born in the Dominican Republic from Haitian immigrant parents. This legislation caused anyone who does not have a parent with 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. In 2014, the inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that La Sentencia (168-13) violated international law and the human rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Due to international pressure, the Dominican Court adopted the corrective naturalization, Ley de Régimen Especial y Naturalización (169-14) in May of 2014. This legislation prompted the Dominican Republic’s Regularization plan which permitted undocumented immigrants to clarify their citizenship status until June 17th, 2015.

Although La Sentencia (168-13) and Ley de Régimen Especial y Naturalización (169-14) affected various immigrant groups in the Dominican Republic, the legislation primarily and directly led to the deportation of Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Nikongo works specifically with Batey communities for Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic. Batey communities 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, Bateyes 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 Bateyes do qualify for citizenship in the Dominican Republic, but do not have access to the resources and education necessary for filling out citizenship documents.

“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 has 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.