Sonia Pierre and Dominicans of Haitian Descent: “We are being erased as human beings”

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Back in October I was lucky enough to see Sonia Pierre, a longtime activist for Dominicans of Haitian descent, speak at what would be one of her last public events before her death the following month. Like the people she spent her life defending, Sonia was born on a batey to Haitian parents who migrated to the Dominican Republic in search of better jobs. Bateys are Dominican sugar plantations where Haitian migrant workers and their offspring face appalling working conditions and live in poverty, marginalized from the rest of Dominican society.

Pierre was known around the world for her work dedicated to improving the status of Dominicans of Haitian descent, who face great discrimination from Dominican society and institutions. The most recent example of such discrimination is a change to the D.R.’s constitution that denies citizenship to Dominicans of Haitian descent. Previously, any person born in the D.R. was automatically granted citizenship. Now Dominicans with Haitian ancestors up to three generations back may be stripped of their citizenship retroactively—and ultimately their rights.

Pierre came to Washington, DC with a delegation of Dominicans of Haitian descent to talk about the change in the constitution and its implications for the future. One of the women accompanying her was the young activist, Ana Maria Belique Delba, who spoke at a congressional briefing about her personal experience as a Dominican of Haitian descent. “I found out about this law because I was on my way to the civil registry to get a copy of my birth certificate so I could sign up to go to university. In the Dominican Republic for any civil or social activity that you are going to be involved in you have to present your birth certificate,” Delba explained.

At the civil registry, Delba was told that she could not get her birth certificate. “I asked for an explanation for why… and they told me that it was because my parents were Haitians. They said there had been a resolution passed and they could not issue birth certificates to anyone whose parents were Haitian.”

“This is a racist resolution because it is a provision that is only applied to the children and grandchildren of Haitian immigrants in the country. It should be a general law. But so far we only know of cases of sons and daughters of Haitians like me.”

“Before, I had been near people who had felt discriminated against. My mother has experienced much discrimination because of being Haitian, but this was the first time that I had felt it in my own flesh and my own experience. That day I cried. I cried out of rage. I cried out of helplessness and sense of not understanding anything that was happening. I didn’t know who could help me. I began to feel my dream slipping away, farther and farther away. How long was this going to last? 6 months, 1 year, 2 years?

In the end, Delba was able to appeal to obtain her birth certificate, but she and Pierre warned that most people are not so lucky. “As Ana Maria has said we are trying to bring you the voice of the many people who do not have a voice right now,” said Pierre. “We have the great fortune of still having documents. But many are not that fortunate. Most of them are young and are unable to develop themselves individually and collectively. Most of these young people will not have access to the justice system.”

“My brother, who is 22 years old, has been trying since he was 18 to get a National ID card, and has not been able to,” said Delba.  “He is not able to go to university… and he is not able to get a job either. So he does what is called chiripia, which is basically trying to get odd jobs here and there. You may have a job one day, you may not have a job the next day.”  

“I want to talk to you about a case that I talk about every chance I get,” said Pierre. “It’s the case of a nine-year-old girl [of Haitian descent] who was raped, tortured, and killed last month. The murderer was set free in this case… [because] the prosecutors in that district said that the girl didn’t exist. She didn’t exist because she didn’t have a birth certificate. And this is what they are doing with thousands of us, those of us who used to exist. We are being erased as human beings.”

Pierre urged members of Congress to take action to support their struggle.

“We are asking you to call on the President of the Dominican Republic to recognize that all people born in the Dominican territory before January 26th 2010 be recognized as Dominican citizens…. Call on the President of the Dominican Republic to stop the retroactive application of the nationality previsions of the 2010 constitution so that any person who was entitled to or possessed Dominican nationality regardless of their ancestry does not lose the legal rights they previously enjoyed…. [And] write a letter supporting the work which we do. By doing so, you will help our struggle and you will help us to live as first, not second class citizens in our country.”

Sonia Pierre’s death is a huge loss for the Dominican and international human rights community, but her legacy will live on. Pierre brought this injustice to the international stage and earned several awards for her work, including the Amnesty International’s Human Rights Ginetta Sagan Fund Award in 2003, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2007, the International Women of Courage award in 2010, and rank of Knight of the Republic of Haiti.  Her dreams of equality for women and Haitians will continue through the work of the organization she founded in 1983, the Movement of Dominico-Haitian Women (MUDHA)—and through our work if we heed her call to action.

To learn more about Sonia Pierre and the struggle of Dominicans of Haitian descent, click here.

To read Ana Maria Belique Delba’s full testimony in Spanish, click here.