SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNS) — A controversial high court ruling in the Dominican Republic that strips citizenship from children of illegal immigrants has drawn international criticism and split the Catholic Church here.

The Sept. 23 Constitutional Court ruling will affect the citizenship status of potentially hundreds of thousands of people born in the country to undocumented immigrant parents as far back as 1929. It cannot be appealed.

Most of those targeted by the ruling already hold Dominican citizenship. The vast majority are children of Haitian laborers who traveled across the shared Caribbean island of Hispaniola in search of work and settled down and raised families.


The question of how to control and regulate immigration from neighboring Haiti has long been one of the defining social questions in the Dominican Republic. But the court ruling has reignited passions over the issue and whether the country should acquiesce to foreign pressures on human rights issues.

“As the religious Dominicans, we cannot remain indifferent to the call of God in the pain and the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of Dominicans that are being affected by this sentence,” the Dominican Conference of Religious said in a communique. The ruling “is violating civil rights.”

The letter, signed by 43 priests, nuns and other members of clergy, drew a stiff rebuke from Cardinal Nicolas Lopez Rodriguez of Santo Domingo.

“They can also say what they want,” he said in response. “No one is above the Constitutional Court. No one, the Catholic Church included.”

Cardinal Lopez’s office declined to comment beyond his public statements.

The division within the church does not surprise Dominican scholar Emelio Betances, author of “The Catholic Church and Power Politics in Latin America.”

“In general on issues such as this one, the church has fallen on the conservative side. But the church is a complex institution with various voices,” Betances said. “The cardinal has a lot of influence.”

Bishop Rafael Felipe Nunez of Barahona, an area near the border with Haiti, opposed the ruling.

“Some have lived in the country for 30 or 40 years,” he said, referring to those affected by the ruling. “Others have been here for two generations. They have grandchildren who were born here. … They don’t know anything about Haiti. They are Dominicans.”

Cardinal Lopez has been among the most blunt Dominican leaders in calling for the country to exert its sovereignty in the face of mounting international pressure that threatens the country’s reputation and relationship with key trading partners, including the United States.

“Don’t involve yourselves,” he said in late October in response to international criticism of the ruling. “Here in the Dominican Republic, we are the bosses, not the international bodies. They should go to their countries and fix what is wrong there. I don’t accept anyone who comes here to dictate anything.”

He is not alone. Dominican President Danilo Medina, leading politicians and some members of the clergy have supported the ruling.

“The issue is so delicate right now that it’s difficult to speak out about it,” one priest in Santo Domingo said, asking his name be withheld for fear of angering his peers and superiors. “I think there are many people in the church who support what the archbishop is saying. He’s saying that the country has a right to interpret its laws without foreign interference.”

The Constitutional Court ruling, which cannot be appealed in domestic courts, has capped a decade of maneuvers by the Dominican government seeking to limit the rights of children of immigrants.

The constitution had long granted citizenship to anyone born in the country with the exception of those “in transit,” a group limited to special circumstances like foreign diplomats stationed here.

However, the government sought to expand the definition of “in transit” to include illegal immigrants, such as the hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in the country and working as construction laborers and sugar cane cutters. An estimated 458,223 Haitians are living in the Dominican Republic, according to an immigrant census released earlier this year.

In 2004, the country passed a migration law that formally expanded the definition of “in transit” to include the children of Haitian immigrants. As a result, authorities began denying documentation to tens of thousands of people who fell into that category, refusing to grant identity papers necessary to do everything from register a child in school to graduate college.

In 2010, the country approved a new constitution that formalized the distinction, leaving more than 244,000 children of immigrants questioning whether they are eligible for citizenship. The government is reviewing the birth registry to verify the exact number of those affected.

“I’m not Haitian, I’m Dominican,” said Altagracia Jean Joseph, who was born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents and traveled to Haiti only once in his life. “I’d prefer to die than to live as a foreigner in the country where I was born.”

Armed with stories like that of Jean Joseph, Catholic groups have taken the offensive in pressuring the Dominican government to reverse the ruling.

“There are legislative measures the Dominican government can take to address this situation,” said Mary Small, assistant director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service in the United States.

Jesuit Refugee Service was among two dozen international organizations and human rights groups that signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking for the U.S. to pressure the Dominican government on the issue.

Yet, Betances said it is unlikely that international pressure will force the Dominican government to take action.

“What you are seeing and hearing loudly, unfortunately, are the voices of the minority,” he said.