MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll meet an author who managed to trace her own great-grandmother's journey from a small village in India to the cane fields of Guyana. We'll hear about this remarkable feat of reporting that sheds light on a system that's probably even less understood than slavery, which is indentured servitude.
But first, we're going to follow up on another story we've been pursuing that involves the journeys of people across borders. Now, we've been telling you about the controversy involving citizenship in the Dominican Republic. The nation's Constitutional Court recently upheld a provision in the Constitution that says that children of migrants are not eligible for Dominican citizenship. And the court has ordered authorities to audit the nation's birth records going back to June of 1929. The people most affected by the ruling are the descendents of Haitians who came to the Dominican Republic as contract workers. Human rights observers say that as many as 200,000 people of Haitian decent will be left stateless by his decision, and it has sparked international condemnation. Today, though, we are going to hear perspective from the government of the Dominican Republic. Leonel Mateo Hernandez is the counselor. His portfolio's political affairs at the embassy of the Dominican Republic, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Counselor, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
LEONEL MATEO HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much, Michel. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to present the position of the government of the Dominican Republic, like you said.
MARTIN: Well, we're eager to hear it. And I think the first question that many people have is, why now? As I understand it, this was sparked by a court case. A woman, named Juliana Deguis Pierre, had her birth certificate seized in 2008 by the Central Electoral Board on the basis that her name was Haitian. Is this accurate? Can you just describe the background to the case, and why now?
HERNANDEZ: I think it would be inaccurate to say that it was in basis of her last names. This case was presented to the highest court because Juliana Deguis Pierre was refused her birth certificate. It was under investigation. The court decided against her. So she took her case to the highest court, which is the Constitutional Tribunal. It pretty much upheld previous interpretations of the constitutional norm that has been existing since 1929. A very important thing that we have to mention here is that the Constitutional Tribunal did not take away her nationality. It pretty much ordered the JCE - the agency in charge of issuing birth certificates - to return the birth certificate to Juliana Deguis Pierre. And at the same time, it ordered the JCE to send the birth certificate to the appropriate court so that it would evaluate the validity or otherwise.
MARTIN: So the relevance of this to all these other people we're talking about is what?
HERNANDEZ: All the people who are in her same situation are going to be given back their birth certificate. Their cases are going to be evaluated in an appropriate court. But at the same time, it also ordered the Migration Directorate to provide her with a temporary residence card. She's going to be able to stay in the country until her case is evaluated by the court.
MARTIN: The government has a dispute about how many people are at issue here. Human rights observers say that it could be as many as a quarter of a million people, and the government, as I understand, disputes that.
HERNANDEZ: One of the mandates of the ruling is that an audit be performed to the civil registry books to determine how many foreigners were registered, and the numbers came up as 53,847 foreigners registered. Out of which, 29,400 were registered in a legal way. So these people are entitled to the Dominican nationality. However, there were 24,000 people who were recorded in the register books that were inscribed without fulfilling the requisites for Dominican nationality. Out of these 24,000, 13,600 were of Haitian descent. In the Dominican Republic, if one of your parents is Dominican or a legal resident, then your children are considered Dominican.
MARTIN: The basic thing that you want to establish here, as I understand it, is that in the Dominican Republic, you don't have a right to citizenship because you're born there.
HERNANDEZ: You are not automatically - cannot automatically become a Dominican national. If you're born in the United States, you're an American citizen. There's 140 countries around the world that have exceptions to that rule, and the Dominican Republic is one of them.
MARTIN: So who's a foreigner in the Dominican Republic? I mean, the basic question here is that there are people who came to the Dominican Republic as contract workers generations ago, and so you're saying that they're still not Dominican citizens?
HERNANDEZ: 1929 is the year when our legislators amended the Constitution to change the principles of nationality. So pretty much anybody who was born in the Dominican Republic is a Dominican national, with the exceptions of the children of foreign diplomats and the children of people who are in transit. And in this transit category fall tourists, business people, temporary workers.
MARTIN: Well, that's the crux of the issue, isn't it? That these are people who are viewed as temporary workers, even if they've been there for generations. The government's basic position is that these people should have left long ago? What is the point of viewing that...
HERNANDEZ: Not exactly that they should have left long ago, but they should have regularized their status. Let's say you're in the Dominican Republic as a temporary worker. You can opt to obtain a residence card, which will allow you, if you have children in the country, to convert them to Dominican nationality. Maybe this is what didn't happen.
MARTIN: Why is now the court ordering the sweeping audit of all birth records? And what is going happen to people who have, in fact, lived in the country - many of them, they say for generations - and now don't have legal status there?
HERNANDEZ: Well, I'll tell you...
MARTIN: Or are essentially stateless?
HERNANDEZ: Thank you for the question. They will not be in limbo. These people will be provided with the birth certificates. They will be provided with a temporary residence card until the courts decide the validity or not of the birth certificate. However, let me tell you. If the court says your birth certificate is not valid, then they will be included in the regularization plan for foreigners. It's going to start being implemented in a few weeks. And what the plan is going to do is that they're going to be able to opt for Dominican nationality by nationalization. If you can prove that you were born in the country, that you have strong ties with the country, you will be given the Dominican nationality.
MARTIN: But how can you prove that if, by definition, people have not been allowed to register their birth certificates? Isn't that the issue here?
HERNANDEZ: They do have their birth certificate. I have my birth certificate here, for example. Leonel Mateo, for instance, April 21st, 1983. He's the son of Porfirio Mateo, Dominican national, ID number. And the son of Maria Hernandez, ID number, Domincan national, as well. This is one of the main things.
MARTIN: If you have not established that your parents had Dominican nationality under the same set of rules, what then do you do because the issue here is that there are people who've been living in the country for generations who have not been regularized by the system. So what then do they do?
HERNANDEZ: That is correct. But they were born in the country, and they have been in the country for several years. That is going to tell their authorities, OK, these people have been in the country for a long time. They have strong ties to society. So we will be able to include them in the regularization plan. And this is going to allow them to continue receiving the services they have been receiving for a long time, documented or undocumented. And they will be able to opt for the Dominican nationality by nationalization.
HERNANDEZ: The president has expressed that this is a humanitarian issue and is to be resolved with respect to human rights.
MARTIN: Well, that was going to be my question. You are clearly aware of the strong negative reaction to this decision by surrounding governments, and certainly, by members even of the ex-patriot community, and certainly by people in the Haitian diaspora, as well as other sort of interested parties who feel that it is racist and inhumane. And I'd like to ask if you could respond to that.
HERNANDEZ: I think it's unfair to say that this ruling was based on any racism. If you go to the Dominican Republic, you can see that Haitians and Dominicans interact in a daily basis. The Dominican government and the Haitian government have very cordial relations, and both countries are looking forward to the future.
MARTIN: What accounts, in your view, for the disconnect between how your government sees this and how so much of the rest of the world sees this at this moment?
HERNANDEZ: I think there is a misunderstanding of what the ruling says. This is actually a very positive thing because it's allowing them an opportunity to come out of the vulnerability state and to be able to fulfill all the necessities that they have to be able to have access...
MARTIN: So what you're saying is this actually offers a path to, if not citizenship, to regularization, to legal status that heretofore did not exist. Is that what your contention is?
HERNANDEZ: A path to legal status and a path to even nationality by nationalization, absolutely. There won't be any mass deportations. And the president of the Dominican Republic gave his word publicly about this.
MARTIN: Leonel Mateo Hernandez is counselor at the embassy of the Dominican Republic. His portfolio is political affairs, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much for joining us.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.