The World

Hispaniolan Limbo

Haitian children stand outside on March 3, 2012, in the border town of Tierra Nueva, Dominican Republic. 

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The governments of the Haiti and the Dominican Republic met this week to discuss rising tension between the neighbors, particularly a highly controversial court ruling that could strip Dominican citizenship from thousands of people of Haitian descent.

The ruling, in September, retroactively denied citizenship to anyone born in the country to non-Dominican parents since 1929—a law that human rights groups say could turn as many as 200,000 people, primarily those of Haitian descent, many of whom have lived in the Dominican Republic for generations and identify primarily as Dominican—into stateless persons. (The Dominican government argues the real number of those affected is closer to 24,000.)

The Dominican government defends the decision by pointing out that “Unlike the United States, the Dominican Republic does not grant citizenship to all those born within its jurisdiction. In fact, the United States is one of the few nations that maintains this practice.”

This is true to a certain extent. As anti-immigration groups in the U.S. often point out, only about 30 countries in the world—primarily in the Western hemisphere—have unrestricted jus soli citizenship along U.S. lines, though many other countries to have somewhat more restricted versions of the concept.  

But it’s one thing to set new rules for people coming into the country—as the Dominican Republic did with a court ruling in 2010—and another to change the status of the country’s largest immigrant group, some of whose grandparents lived in the country.* It’s true that under Haiti’s own citizenship rules, children of Haitian parents born outside the country should be eligible for Haitian citizenship, but given the state of bureaucracy in that country and the fact that many of the people in question may have few connections to their ancestral home, it seems likely that thousands of people could be stuck in geopolitical limbo for quite a while.  

It seems unlikely that the court decision would be reversed at this point, but here’s hoping the officials can work out a deal to keep Haitian Dominicans from joining the troubled ranks of the world’s 12 million stateless people.

*Correction, Jan. 13, 2014: This post originally misstated the year in which a court ruling in the Dominican Republic changed immigration laws.