It Takes Two

Dominian Republic-Haiti Relations

A controversial immigration law has led to new tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which have a long history of conflict due to social and economic differences.

Hispaniola, home of the first permanent European settlement in the Americas, is today one of only two Caribbean islands divided between to countries. Since 1697, the western third of the island has been controlled by the French colony of Saint-Domingue and later the nation of Haiti, while the eastern two-thirds have belonged to the Spanish province of Santo Domingo and later the Dominican Republic. Divided from the very beginning by cultural and economic differences, the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has been marked by friction and conflict dating back centuries.

The political fates of the two countries have diverged over the years but have always been linked. After attaining independence, the Dominican Republic was briefly under Haitian rule until gaining its freedom in 1844. The border between the two nations was under dispute for nearly a century afterward. Each dealt with periods of political turmoil during the 20th century, including long periods under oppressive regimes. After being economic equals at the beginning of the 20th century, the Dominican economy surged ahead thanks to successful industrialization and trade policies while Haiti struggled with fiscal issues, power struggles, and poor standards of living. Today, the Dominican Republic enjoys a per-capita income over eight times higher and an average life expectancy 10 years greater than Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As a result, the current state of relations between the two countries is a state of unease stemming from the unequal relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

In recent years, the question of how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent has become the key issue in the relationship between the two countries. Long an issue due to stagnant economic growth in Haiti, movement to the Dominican Republic increased after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 100,000 Haitians. Today, there are an estimated 800,000 people of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic, including an estimated half a million Dominican residents born in Haiti, making the Haitian population easily the largest subgroup in the Dominican Republic. This has long been a source of tension in the Dominican Republic, as government officials and nativists have bemoaned the number of migrants in the country. At the same time, the Dominican economy depends on this Haitian Immigration, especially in the agriculture and construction sectors.

The immigration issue has been coming to a head in recent years as the Dominican Republic has enacted new policies in an attempt to prevent new inflows and remove those already in the country. In 2010, the constitution was rewritten to prevent anyone born in the country to foreigners “in transit” from claiming Dominican citizenship. A 2013 Constitutional Court ruling went even further, retroactively denying Dominican citizenship to anyone born after 1929 without at least one Dominican parent. The decision sparked international outrage, as it stripped citizenship from an estimated 250,000 immigrants, the vast majority of them Haitian. The ensuing years have seen deportations that violate international human rights laws, with Dominicans often detained and deported based only on appearance. The government passed legislation in 2014 creating a path to citizenship for residents affected by the court’s ruling, but the process, which puts the burden of proof on the accused, is so Byzantine and opaque that it offers little recourse for the hundreds of thousands of Dominican residents who are now effectively stateless.

Moving forward, the Dominican Republic and Haiti will need to work together to find a solution to their shared immigration issues. An economically strong and well-developed Haiti is the only permanent solution to the migration problem, so it is in both countries’ best interest to work to use the Dominican Republic’s economic power to help Haiti industrialize and find sources of employment for its population. The Dominican Republic’s action in recent years threaten to jeopardize its international standing and fledging role as a leader in Latin America and the Caribbean, so resolving these issues quickly and humanely is a priority for the nation. Eliminating deportations without due process and working to find a fair diplomatic solution that works for all Dominicans will be needed to bring stability and prosperity to Hispaniola and build a future for both nations.

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