Reading Neoliberal Anti-Blackness in the Dominican Republic’s Immigration Policies

Most critics have failed to recognize the central role of neoliberalism in the Dominican Republic’s wave of anti-Black policies. The law has an underlying fear: the presence of the very Haitian migrants it depends on.

February 2, 2014



In 2008, Juliana Deguis Pierre walked into a civil service office to obtain an identity card, but was denied because “her last names are Haitian.” She continued to be denied documentation and was even denied citizenship, although she was born in the Dominican Republic. Deguis Pierre took her case to court, and years of litigation culminated in a new law that illegalized not only Deguis Pierre, but hundreds of thousands of other Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Anti-Black, anti-Haitianism has deep roots in the Dominican Republic, despite the fact that the vast majority of Dominicans are of African descent. Anti-Haitianism commenced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Haitian revolutionaries launched the only successful slave revolt in human history. The Haitians occupied Santo Domingo (present day Dominican Republic) with the aim of guarding the revolution against its western enemies, and of extending abolition to the eastern side of the island.

Spanish slaveholders rejected the Haitian incursion and tied a burgeoning elite nationalism to notions of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness reached its apex during the reign of the U.S.-backed ruler Rafael Trujillo who, in 1937, oversaw the genocide of as many as 30,000 black people suspected of being Haitian.

The right-wing international press sees this sort of extreme violence as a thing of the past, but violent anti-blackness permeates all aspects of Dominican society. This violence recently erupted through the lynching of a Haitian man and the murder of as many as five other Haitians suspected of killing an elderly Dominican couple in the aftermath of this recent ruling.

Neoliberal Anti-Blackness

Sentencia TC/0168/13 was passed in September of 2013 and it establishes that the nearly 500,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic are in the country illegally, thus subject to deportation; the ruling extends to the descendants of Haitian immigrants who came to the Dominican Republic as early as 1929. The sentencia (ruling) has come under fire from journalists, academics, human rights organizations, and regional governments because the ruling makes many of these people stateless, thereby violating international law.

Most critics have failed to recognize, however, the central role of neoliberalism in the Dominican Republic’s most recent wave of anti-Black policies. The Dominican Republic has followed neoliberal doctrine for decades, maintaining low tariffs in order to induce foreign trade, and relying on tourism, low-wage jobs from international corporations, and cheap export products such as sugarcane to sustain its economy. Although the country’s economy has expanded during the past decade, this wealth has flowed to a small elite sector of society and has failed to “trickle down” to most Dominicans. Even the World Bank’s conservative estimations state that over 40 percent of Dominicans live in poverty, while 15 percent are unemployed. The minimum wage varies according to profession, but is as low as $39 a month.

For Haiti, neoliberal rule is manifested in a sweatshop economy that produces goods for multinational corporations, such as The GAP, Target, and Wal-Mart.

These neoliberal practices expose the entrenched connections between racism and capitalism: they are designed to benefit white elites, while ensuring the poverty of Black laborers. These policies fuel anti-Black attitudes, as many Dominicans are frustrated with the paralyzing effects of neoliberalism, which have brought extreme inequality, and blame the inability of the country’s wealth to “trickle down” on the presence of Black “outsiders” who are supposedly taking jobs and wasting government money. This recent wave of anti-Black laws should be seen, therefore, as an attempt by the Dominican government to reign in the effects of a global neoliberal order—one that they have arduously promoted.

2004 Precedent

The sentencia largely draws on the original 2004 Ley General de Migración which is explicitly concerned with mitigating the migratory effects of neoliberalism:

"The country should give a functional and modern response to the challenges of a changing world, interdependent and global, one of whose principal expressions is the phenomenon of international migration."

Here, Dominican lawmakers express their concern to become “modern,” while also expressing a desire to control the effects of this newly interdependent world—the migration of low-wage workers, and in the case of the Dominican Republic, of Black Haitians. “National development” is often cited as the goal of the country’s recent immigration policies, but the kind of national development the country is seeking operates in service of international capital, rather than in the interests of the majority of Dominicans. The 2004 law states that it seeks to:

"propose strategies that rationalize the use of immigrant manual labor on the basis of the job market’s sectorial requirements and the demands for qualified human resources that are required by the development process."

The law seeks to control the influx of Haitian labor in accord with “the demands” of the “development process”; it seeks to promote a “modernity” through economic growth and the promotion of international investment, but has an underlying fear: the presence of the very Haitian migrants it depends on, and the blackening effects of these policies.

In addition, physically and mentally disabled people should not be admitted into the country, nor should people whose “societal integration is considered doubtful due to a lack of work habits, habitual inebriation or vagrancy, or when they display any other condition that shows that they may constitute a burden for the State. Here, “social integration” is key: if the migrant cannot be “integrated”—or made Dominican—then they should be refused entry. The law explicitly states that prostitutes should not be allowed into the country, although it is unclear how one is to identify the entry of a prostitute, a drunk, or a vagrant. As one reads the document in the context of the Dominican Republic’s history of racial violence, and in the context of the rigid control of migratory flow, however, it is clear that blackness becomes the marker for these unwanted behaviors.

The Sentencia

The sentencia consistently refers to Haitians in order to make clear that the law is aimed at eliminating their presence:

"There are a great number of foreigners in the Dominican Republic who aspire to obtain Dominican citizenship, most of whom are undocumented Haitian nationals."

The sentencia goes on to explain that nearly 90 percent, or over 450,000, of the over 524,000 “immigrants” that live in the Dominican Republic are Haitian. Unlike the 2004 law that ruled that those born in the Dominican Republic were Dominican, and whose goal was to stop only the further entry of Haitians, the 2013 sentencia declares that perhaps all people of Haitian descent are in the country illegally. This marks a shift from 2004, when the migration law of that year stated that Haitians could be allowed in the country if capital required it. The sentencia, on the other hand, is hostile to all Haitians, and retroactively strips hundreds of thousands of people of their rights to citizenship:

“Not everyone born in the territory of the Dominican Republic is Dominican."

The 2013 sentencia is littered with language that implicitly and explicitly outlaws blackness. In explaining the reasoning behind these new policies, the document clearly states that the Dominican “race” should not be contaminated by Haitian blood:

“nationality is considered a judicial and political bond that ties a person to a state; but, in a more technical and precise manner, it is not only a judicial bond, but also a sociological and political one, whose conditions are established and defined by the State itself…sociological, because at its core there exists an ensemble of historical, linguistic, racial, and geopolitical characteristics.”

Here, the sentencia states nationality is not solely a legal bond, but also a “sociological” one, which “at its core” is defined by race. In a sharp shift from the 2004 law, the sentencia makes clear that it is the state that is to decide who can be admitted into the polity, rather than capital forces, which the state ironically enables. On the one hand, the state operates in service of international capital, but on the other hand, it hopes to regulate some of its undesirable effects, namely blackness.

The document goes on to explain that keeping Haitians out of the country is for the greater good of the Dominican Republic:

“Nationality is a question of public order that corresponds to the Civil Registry of every country, which is responsible for its conservation, its correction, and its safeguarding.”

Here, the sentencia indicates that government agencies are responsible for “safeguarding” the nation, and that “nationality” is a question of “public order.” If “order”’ is to be preserved in the Dominican Republic, migrants—Black, Haitian migrants—must be controlled. The 2004 law and the 2013 sentencia consistently bring up the importance of ensuring “public order”—a clear representation of the state’s critique of Haitians, whose blackness makes them disorderly and difficult to control.

The sentencia closes with a ruling on Juliana Deguis Pierre, one that has ramifications for half a million Haitian-Dominicans:

“although she was born in national territory, she is the daughter of foreign citizens in transit, which deprives her of the privilege of Dominican nationality.”

In this ruling, “foreign citizens in transit” is the term that the Dominican government gives to Dominicans of Haitian descent. Through this law, Haitian-Dominicans with as many as three generations of family roots in the country are now retroactively considered mobile.

Regularization for Purchase

In November of 2013, in accordance with the sentencia, President Danilo Medina announced his plan to “regularize” the recently illegalized Haitians, and the requirements were largely based on financial assets, rather than time spent in the country or place of birth. The “plan” is to last 18 months, and is designed to have Haitians apply for citizenship, although there is no promise for citizenship if the person applying fills the qualifications. Those that apply must prove their “ties to Dominican society” in two ways. First, by demonstrating an ability to speak and write in Spanish, and second, by showing they have bank accounts (apparently more than one). Article 23 of the presidential decree states that those who apply must have at least two of the following:

1) Proof of college, high school, and elementary school graduation.

2) Proof of technical certification

3) Proof of real estate property

4) Proof of personal property that equals more than RD$10,000 ($234.47)

5) Automobile ownership

6) A bank account that shows regular activity in the past 18 months and that contains at least RD $10,000

7) Proof of employment

8) Two letters of support from business associates who have been registered with the Dominican government.

In order to apply for Dominican citizenship, Black people must demonstrate their monetary value. Although at this point it is unclear who, if anyone, will be granted citizenship, it is safe to surmise that if some Haitians are granted citizenship, it will be those who can afford to buy away the blackness that makes them undesirable. Perhaps this way, Black Haitians will join Black Dominicans in forgetting their blackness, toiling away in the interest of international capital, and become twenty-first century “dominicanos.”


These recent anti-Black migration laws are the product of the Dominican state enabling neoliberalism but intervening in the very processes they enable. The Dominican Republic has received international pressure to stop or mollify the sentencia. This pressure—along with Venezuelan mediated talks between the Haitian and Dominican governments, and the unrealistic predicament of deporting half a million people—may make large-scale deportations untenable. However, given the Dominican state’s hatred for blackness, evidenced most dramatically in the 1937 genocide, and recently with the lynching of Haitian people, the potential for extreme violence should not be discounted.

This recent wave of anti-Black policy reveals that—in the setting of twenty-first century neocolonialism—states such as the Dominican Republic are attempting to halt the migratory effects of neoliberalism in order to ensure the accretion of profits for elites and their corporate allies, and to ensure a degree of whiteness characteristic of the “most civilized nations on the planet.”


Enrique Salvador Rivera is a former producer and reporter for NPR and other news outlets. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin American History at Vanderbilt University, where he specializes in the history of race, slavery, and capitalism in the greater Caribbean, particularly Venezuela.


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