Pressure yielding results for Haitian immigrants in Dominican Republic
While running for Congress in 2012, Joe Kennedy III highlighted his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, where he worked with migrant Haitians to improve horrific living conditions in sugar-cane camps.
With less than a year in office, the newly minted congressman unexpectedly finds himself in the middle of a war of words between Haiti and the neighboring D.R. over a recent court decision stripping Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship going back four generations.
Kennedy has been outspoken in denouncing the D.R. ruling and has been working behind the scenes to achieve a resolution of the issue, which has caused relations between the countries occupying the island of Hispaniola to deteriorate.
Back in November, the 4th District representative co-authored a letter to Dominican President Danilo Medina Sanchez urging him to “take all necessary steps to stay the tide of the denationalization campaign.”
Since the ruling, which was handed down by the Dominican Republic’s constitutional court in September, Caribbean heads of state and the United Nations have put pressure on Santo Domingo to reverse the decision, which has led to heightened tensions along the border and attacks on Haitians in the D.R.
The ruling calls into question the citizenship of as many as 240,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry — children and grandchildren born to any noncitizens or those who cannot prove citizenship. The Dominican Republic has a population of 10 million, including more than 450,000 people of Haitian descent, many of whom lack proper documents.
Kennedy, the son of former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, who compiled a strong record of advocating for democracy and social justice during his years in office, says it’s too soon for Congress to discuss taking such action as sanctions against the Dominican Republic.
“At this point, we want to give the Dominican Republic the opportunity to meet their obligations over this issue before we start discussing what we do if they don’t,” he said during an interview with the Banner.
While Kennedy and his colleagues in Congress are opting for diplomatic pressure, others have been calling for more direct action. State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry urged the international community to bar Dominican firms from bidding on contracts to rebuild roads and housing damaged by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“We need to stop hiring Dominican companies,” she said, during remarks last week at a Haitian Independence celebration in Randolph.
Dominican government officials originally refused to discuss the ruling with the international community, but global pressure has led Dominican officials to the table. Representatives of the Dominican Republic and Haiti began meeting last week to talk about the court ruling, migration and border security.
“The Haitian government is asking for concrete measures to be taken to protect the fundamental rights of people of Haitian origin,” said Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe in a prepared statement following the talks in the Haitian town of Ouanaminthe. “The Dominican government made this guarantee.”
The pressure from Haiti and the international community may be having an effect. Lamothe said the Dominican Republic’s National Office of Migration will provide temporary papers for Haitians who work in the country.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Their history has been contentious since the newly liberated Haiti annexed the Dominican Republic in 1822. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of an estimated 20,000 Haitian migrant workers in what was widely seen as part of his efforts to whiten the predominantly Creole population.
There is even a word for the hatred of Hatians in the Dominican Republic — antihatianismo — and much of the public on the island is said to be behind the government’s anti-immigration policy.
But in the United States — which at various points in history has occupied both nations — many in the Dominican expatriate community have expressed opposition to the ruling.
Kennedy saw the conditions of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic firsthand when he served there in the U.S. Peace Corps between 2004 and 2006. While on assignment near the town of Puerto Plata, Kennedy began working with a group of migrant laborers who lived in a work camp owned by a Dominican sugar company.
The 300 or so workers lived in deplorable conditions, sharing a single latrine and a single water tap.
“The living conditions were pretty squalid,” he said. “There was a high incidence of intestinal parasites and low educational attainment.”
Through Kennedy’s efforts, Peace Corps workers built latrines in the camp. Kennedy, whose great-uncle, President John F. Kennedy, launched the Peace Corps, spent most of his time in the D.R. working with a set of rural waterfall guides, helping them to obtain a concession to run the national park where the falls were located. As a result of his efforts, new safety measures were introduced, salaries increased, and a community fund established to pipe clean water into the village.
For Kennedy, the exploitation of Haitian workers remains a pressing concern.
With Haitian and Dominican leaders meeting at the negotiating table, Kennedy says there’s still hope that the Dominican government can work around the court ruling. While Dominican officials have staunchly rejected the idea of overturning the court ruling, Kennedy says the government can work around it.
“The government can pass a law granting them citizenship,” he said. “There have been indications from the government that they want the time and ability to implement the decision as a sovereign nation.”
Elected to the seat vacated by former Congressman Barney Frank, Kennedy’s district stretches from Newton in the north to Fall River in the south. Compared to urban districts in Massachusetts, the 4th has a small Dominican and Haitian population.
The 32-year-old congressman, who served as an assistant district attorney on the Cape and in Middlesex County before his election, said his commitment to seeking a resolution to the crisis is “a matter of civil and human rights. We all have an obligation to stand up for justice,” he said.