SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Experts warned Friday that a Dominican court decision to strip citizenship from children of Haitian migrants could cause a human rights crisis, potentially leaving tens of thousands of people stateless, facing mass deportation and discrimination.
The ruling by the Dominican Republic's Constitutional Court is final and gives the electoral commission one year to produce a list of people to be excluded from citizenship.
The court ruling published Thursday applies to those born after 1929 — a category that overwhelmingly includes Haitians brought in to work on farms and their descendants. It also appears to affect their children and grandchildren, said Wade McMullen, a New York-based attorney at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights.
A U.N.-backed study released this year estimated that there are nearly 210,000 Dominican-born people of Haitian descent and roughly another 34,000 born to parents of another nationality.
Many of those "are now effectively stateless," McMullen said. "We really don't know what's going to happen to those people ... Based on what the Dominican government is saying, these people are not Dominican citizens and will have to leave and effectively go to Haiti, where they are also not citizens. It creates an extremely complicated situation."
The majority of them don't have Haitian citizenship, have little or no ties to Haiti and likely don't speak Creole, he said. Getting Haitian citizenship can be complicated too because it is difficult to comply with requirements to prove descent from a Haitian national.
Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based civil rights and immigration lawyer, said the decision "may lead to mass deportation. It will certainly lead to mass discrimination," he said. "They're just going to start rounding up Haitians."
The Dominican government is currently analyzing the birth certificates of more than 16,000 people, while electoral authorities have refused to issue identity documents to 40,000 people of Haitian descent.
"To all of a sudden be told no, you're not Dominican, it's very frustrating," said Elmo Bida Joseph, a 21-year-old student who said he was denied his ID and a copy of his birth certificate because he was born to Haitian migrants.
"All my dreams have been broken," said Bida, a baseball player who needed those documents to enroll in a baseball academy.
Now he worries he'll be deported.
"I feel that's around the corner. That in any moment I'll be detained and they'll send me to Haiti," he said.
David Abraham, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the decision was part of a larger effort to keep Haitians from entering the Dominican Republic and to encourage self-deportation of those already here.
He cited the racial differences between the predominantly black Haitians and mixed-race Dominicans as well as Haiti's plight as one of the world's poorest countries.
"The fear of the Dominican Republic, of being pulled down to the level of Haiti economically and the 'blackening' of the country, has been an obsession of Dominican politicians for well over a century," he said.
Spanish-speaking Dominicans and Creole-speaking Haitians share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and have a long history of troubles, including wars and massacres. Relations warmed after Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people, but tensions have since resumed.
The office of Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe declined to comment about the ruling. The Dominican government estimates that some 500,000 people born in Haiti live in the Dominican Republic.
Until 2010, the Dominican Republic automatically bestowed citizenship to anyone born on its soil. But that year, the government approved a new constitution stating that citizenship will be granted only to those born on its soil to at least one parent of Dominican blood or whose foreign parents are legal residents.
Rights groups and migrant activists said the decision would force many people underground and deprive them of basic needs and public services.
Jorge Duany, an anthropology professor at Florida International University who has studied the migration of Dominicans in the Caribbean, said the decision comes after countless years of friction between the two countries.
"The impact could be truly catastrophic," he said. "They are stigmatizing an entire Haitian population."
Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP writers Trenton Daniel and Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this report.