“I Am the Darker Brother”: Michèle Stephenson’s “Stateless” Documentary

In an interview, lawyer-advocate Rosa Iris Diendome discusses her work defending the citizenship status of Dominicans of Haitian descent, which filmmaker Michèle Stephenson chronicles in her recent documentary Stateless.

April 28, 2021

Young boys run through a Dominican sugar cane field. (Stateless)

Co-published with Huellas. Read an extended version of this interview here

This piece was edited prior to the start of the GSOC, UAW Local 2110 strike

Michèle Stephenson’s documentary, Stateless, follows Dominican lawyer Rosa Iris Diendome as she defends the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent against deportation. Diendome is also the subject of the documentary Our Lives in Transit produced by Minority Rights Group International. In both films, tragicomedy plays out; the Dominican Republic is a Black nation plagued by systemic anti-Black racism. The small island nation is 90 percent Afro-descendant, the first Spanish colony, and the first to import enslaved Africans into the “new world.”

Additionally, it is Haiti’s neighbor. Haiti—home of the first slave rebellion that led to the first independent Black nation in the West. Old history for some, but for more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent left stateless by a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling, the struggle for their humanity plays out every day. The Constitutional Court ruled that: “Dominican children of irregular migrants born in the Dominican Republic between 1920 and 2010 had never been entitled to Dominican nationality and would be stripped of that nationality.”

The shadow of the 1937 Parsley Massacre looms heavy. Violent threats against Haitian laborers and Dominican-Haitians are made hourly over social media and veiled threats appear in the news. Attacks are escalating in a way not seen since the Trujillo era.

Diendome attempts to secure an ID for a young man named Clenol Boni. The official in charge looks disparagingly at Boni’s dark complexion. After asking him to state his name she says she doesn’t believe Boni is Dominican because he doesn’t speak Spanish correctly. Diendome argues that his documents are in order and that nothing else should matter in a country of laws. The official refuses them in an argumentative, dismissive tone.

The encounter exemplifies what lawyer-advocates for stateless Dominican-Haitians face daily. In the Dominican Republic, a valid ID is a citizen’s lifeline. School, health benefits, work, transportation, banking, the ability to vote all require a valid ID. The state is paralyzing its Dominican-Haitian citizenry by rejecting, in most cases, valid documentation presented for renewal of identification cards. Dominican lawyers term this a civic genocide. The state is offering no options for correcting irregularities in documents like birth certificates, instead rejecting irregular documents as counterfeit.

How you do explain to a nation who they actually are, and the shared history they are part of? The transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, post-colonialism, dictatorships, the global Black Power movement, Pan-Africanism? What drives a nation of Black people to see themselves not only as the victims of past colonial horrors, but also as its beneficiaries? At the end of the day, a Dominican must be able to look at their darker skinned brothers and sisters and see humans worthy of love and respect, but for too long, this has proved difficult for too many.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RCG: What is the biggest problem you would encounter when reviewing citizenship documentation?

RD: The biggest problem so far has been the origin of the parents or grandparents, since although the proof of the document with which they have lived in DR is provided, the JCE (Central Electoral Board of the Dominican Republic) always asks for additional documents, and they are subjected to a process of endless research. The JCE ignores that the affected were born in the Dominican Republic, and have already proven the fact of birth, this is in the case of those who already have a birth record.

The unregistered have no way for their nationality to be recognized, even though they should carry the protection of being born on Dominican soil.

RCG: What causes the problem in documents that have irregularities?

RD: The fact that the Dominican state interprets the status of the parents as in indefinite transit. The Supreme Court ruling states that Haitian migrants have been in transit since 1929. It is contrary to the constitution and the immigration law in force until 2004, which established that any foreigner who was in the Dominican Republic for more than 10 days could be in another immigration status, but not in transit….

However, Haitian migrants came to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugarcane fields and in most cases, they were taken in by the state or private companies. The zafra, which is the sugar production period, had a duration of six to eight months. The state or the company provided the workers with a document called a ficha, used to collect workers’ pay every week or fortnight. The companies used it to deduct funds for health insurance, social security, and other taxes (although today the state does not want to pay workers their pensions) and with that same document they went to officials to register their children. And the authorities accepted the ficha as a complete and valid form of identification.

Now, the state alleges the irregularity of their documents based on the status of the parents. By invoking the transit rule from 1929-2013 they invalidate the ficha and every other document. A fact that violates the Constitution, even the new Constitution of 2010. No law can be above the Constitution or International Treaties.

RCG: What excuse or reason does the government provide for rejecting the documents?

RD: The fact that an irregular document cannot generate rights, referring to the supposed state of transit of the parents. Applicants carry the stigma that when they submit an application with a French last name, they will receive different treatment.

One scene of the documentary cuts to former President Danilo Medina explaining the National Regularization Plan. Medina denounces the international community for criticizing the plan’s impact on Dominican-Haitians. He denies that 200,000 Dominicans have been left stateless. Meanwhile, Diendome’s colleague, Genaro Rincon, is beaten savagely by anti-Haitian nationalists. On a television program called A Partir de Ahora (From Now On), Rincon explains that he was stoned with chunks of cinder blocks and stomped on. He presents his injuries to the camera.

Gladys Feliz-Pimentel first appears in the film at the Dominican-Haitian border, being a nuisance. A soldier informs her that the Haitians entering and leaving are licensed merchants who cross the border to conduct business. She is not convinced. Feliz-Pimentel is a member of the Dominican Nationalist Movement. The movement is anti-Haitian, anti-immigration, racist, and wraps all these beliefs in the flag. Feliz-Pimentel accuses Haitians of assaults, rapes, and stabbings, to name a few.

RCG: Is the nationalist movement automatically supportive of the Trujillo regime, or do they distance themselves from him?

RD: Interesting question, if we take into account the National Movement’s speeches and organizational behaviors, you could say that they are Trujillistas. They’ve publicly stated many times that the state should repeat what Trujillo did. I hear them say that they are not racists, but they also say they want nothing to do with Haitians. Their constant contempt for our African heritage and their cult of Eurocentrism, leads me to understand that they are Trujillistas.

Diendome tries to help her cousin, Juan Teofilo, return to the Dominican Republic. Juan Teofilo moved to Haiti after La Sentencia rather than be deported. He is a proud man and devoted father stripped of his identity, homeland, and relationship with his Dominican-born children. After securing an interview to hopefully resolve his situation, the pair undertake the perilous journey from the Haitian border to the JCE in Santo Domingo.

At the appointment he is told there is a discrepancy between his mother’s age listed on her death certificate and the birthdate on her birth certificate. The interviewer declares Juan Teofilo’s paperwork counterfeit and useless. The interviewer effectively ends the interview by taking out his cell phone and flipping through his social media.

Rosa Iris meets with two young women. (Stateless)

RCG: What are the main challenges that Dominicans of Haitian descent face in locating these necessary documents?

RD: The main challenge is the political will of the authorities. From there, other challenges emerge. We always have to think of the situation as two affected groups: First, those who have already been registered. Their challenge includes whether or not the parents can find the documents with which they were registered. In many cases, due to atmospheric phenomena, fires, or the parents’ death, they cannot present the documents. If you have financial resources, you can go to Santo Domingo to the main headquarters of the JCE so that you can interview with the Inspectorial Department, and this is in addition to being able to find each means of proof that they ask for. You must also be able to secure legal representation when the JCE demands nullity before the ordinary courts. All of this cost money…

Second, some have never been registered. In the case of mixed couples (Haitian mother or of Haitian descent with Dominican father), if the mother does not have a document, even if the father is Dominican, the child is registered as a foreigner, leaving him/her in a legal limbo in which they do not recognize the child’s nationality.

RCG: Do other Dominicans, not of Haitian descent, have similar problems?

RD: No, they don't have similar problems. Even though we have a problem with their registrations in the country, which in many cases are generational, from my experience, they have a different and more agile course of action to rectify their situation.

Another cut to Medina: “In the Dominican Republic, the number of stateless people is zero. Of course, we sometimes make mistakes. If this happens, and someone presents their case to our government, have no doubt that we will find the solution. But until now, that has not happened.” Juan Teofilo and countless others serve as proof that Medina and the state are lying.

Nationalists refer to the Haitians as “the Haitian problem,” and use words like “invasion” for immigration. Nationalists claim Haiti plans to “dump all Haitian citizens on Dominican soil.” The rhetoric at nationalist rallies carries over to social media, which leads to violence on city streets and in rural communities.

At the heart of this violence and vitriol is the nationalist’s desperate need to disavow African lineage. Dominican-Haitians are acutely aware that racism and colorism are the main causes of their daily dehumanization. Diendome believes that through socio-political action of the people, and international pressure, the state must capitulate. She is asked to run for congress. Her campaign gets off to a positive start, but the people are cynical about long-term change. They are more interested in the short-term bribes that proliferate on election day. Political candidates offer voters 100 Dominican pesos ($1.75 US) for their vote.

RCG: Who finances the bribes that are given to voters?

RD: The political party’s candidates. The bigger question we need answered is “Who finances the political parties?”

RCG: What is the mechanism to get beyond the 100-peso bribe?

RD: On many occasions, the promises of jobs or improvements to the community, which are never kept, leads to voters trying to monopolize what they can get on election day. The voters know they will not see that candidate again. This has been the case historically. Traditional politicians always identify a leader who can convince the voters to accept the bribe. When the voter refuses, threats are sometimes used.

Either they sacrifice the immediate meal, beverage, cell phone, or utility service they could consume with the 100 pesos, or they potentially risk their lives by going against the bribe. Within this corrupt political ether is the far-off chance that the candidate will improve their situation.

RCG: How can people help?

RD: First, by understanding that nationality and statelessness in the Dominican Republic have not yet been resolved. We can still affect change by holding events and mobilizations that summon the Dominican state to take up the issue. Additionally, by supporting local organizations like the Recognized Movement (reconoci.do), whose greatest limitation is the lack of economic resources for field work. The Recognized Movement is an NGO working towards the recognition of Dominicans of Haitian descent as full citizens. Also, by continuing to empower local leadership. Finally, by sending letters to embassies.

For more information on how to view Michèle Stephenson’s Stateless, visit Rada Studio.

Organizations and activists, you can support:
Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas
Movimiento Nacional Reconocido
Dominicans Love Haitians Movement
Dominican Writers Association
In Cultured Company
Ana Belique: Sociologist, Activist and Defender of Dominicans of Haitian Descent

Roberto Carlos Garcia writes extensively about the Afro-Latinx and Afro-Diasporic experience. His essays have appeared in The Root, Seven Scribes, Those People, the now-defunct Gawker, and elsewhere. Roberto has published three poetry collections, including black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric, which Kiese Laymon called “the new standard for American race work in the 21st century,” and most recently [Elegies]. Roberto is the founder of Get Fresh Books Publishing.

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