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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – Adonis Peguero is a well-known fighter in his small town outside Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital. The 20-year-old dreams of one day representing his home country in competition.
But because of a 2013 court ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court that essentially stripped thousands of people without one Dominican parent of their right to citizenship, Peguero may never get the chance.
Following the ruling, Dominican President Danielo Medina ordered the creation of a registration program that allowed those born in the country but who were unregistered, as well as undocumented foreign workers, to apply for formal status. Many found it impossible to navigate the process or recover their papers. Those who missed the deadline for registration are fearful of deportation.
This has meant uncertainty for Peguero and his nine siblings, whose parents came to the Dominican Republic from Haiti years ago. All the children were born in the country. But only two of Peguero’s brothers and sisters have a Dominican birth certificate or ID; Peguero and the others do not. Without those documents, Peguero – like thousands of others – finds his life on hold.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International say that the ruling has rendered generations of Dominicans as “stateless," however, this description has been rejected by the Dominican government.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti have long had a close economic relationship. For generations, Haitians have crossed the border, providing cheap labor for their island neighbor. But relations between the two nations have been marked by periods of violence. It’s not unusual to hear some Dominicans complain of a Haitian “invasion."
Everyone without a confirmed, formal status is on edge. All of them know someone who has been stopped by immigration officials and asked for their documents – or someone deported without warning, sometimes without their children.
Government officials admit that the programs have had their problems. But they say the estimates of those now living in limbo are questionable.
“Thousands of people who did not have access to their documents as Dominicans, now have access to these documents,” said Josue Fiallo, a government spokesman. “We understand that people are concerned that some people could have been left out of the process. We understand that, and we are trying to put in place mechanisms to try and find these people and bring them into one of the categories that we have created. So I think that the magnitude of the problem is not as it has been portrayed.”
Activists, such as Epifania St Chals, advised many poor families of Haitian descent in rural areas about the government programs. Many found them complex and expensive. And in many cases for those who did try register, it’s proven very difficult to get updates about their efforts to enroll in the government’s programs despite frequent calls and visits to government offices — that’s if they can afford the trip.
St Chals says more than ever, anyone who looks Haitian feels discrimination; some think they’re being intimidated so perhaps they will give up and leave the country on their own.
“It’s a risk. There’s a great fear for a lot of people,” St Chals said. “It can even happen to Dominicans who have their documents, those with dark skin who are out and about on the street and sadly, cases happen when immigration officers detain them and take them away.”
Gera Louis had thought he was safe when he registered this year as a foreign worker. He wasn’t.
Louis, who has lived in the Dominican Republic for 25 years, was picked up and put in the back of a truck recently after he’d forgotten his ID at home. He managed to get a message to his wife, who brought it to the police station. It was a close call, he said.
The government says thanks to its plan, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers like Louis now have a formal status.
But some who’ve studied the government programs say not enough was done to help those who never registered: the tens of thousands of people that human rights groups describe as “stateless,” who feel their nationality is being taken away.
“They, to some extent, distrust what is happening and are unwilling to come forward when they are informed about the situation,” said Bridget Wooding, who works with the Caribbean Migrant Observatory. “Quite rightly, they don’t see why they should be made to register as foreigners in the land in which they were born before potentially being naturalized in two years time.”
For Peguero, there’s no sign of a resolution to his uncertain status. He says he knows he belongs in the Dominican Republic. And fortunately, so far, immigration officials haven’t begun detaining and deporting people in his neighborhood.
For now, his focus is on his boxing. He’s determined to stand his ground and fight.