January 7, 2014 / 4:37 PM / 6 years ago

Citizenship threat hangs over Haiti, Dominican talks

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti (Reuters) - Haitian and Dominican authorities met for migration and trade talks on Tuesday under the cloud of a controversial court ruling that threatens to strip Dominican nationality from thousands of residents of Haitian descent.

Presidents of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina (L), and of Haiti, Michel Martelly (R), greet a student as they visit a nursery to inaugurate a reforestation program for Hispaniola Island which both countries share, in the border town of Juana Mendez, June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

The talks are the first under a newly created binational commission designed to improve often hostile relations between the neighbors. They share the island of Hispaniola, the most populous in the Caribbean, with a combined 20 million inhabitants.

It was unclear if and how the citizenship issue would be raised, as Dominican officials have indicated the September ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court was off the table.

The delegations, led by Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and the Dominican president’s chief of staff, Gustavo Montalvo, posed briefly for reporters but made no comments before the talks got underway at an industrial park.

The talks in the Haitian border town of Ouanaminthe are being observed by Venezuela, the European Union and the CARICOM, the Caribbean’s main regional organization.

Haiti has expressed its concern following the court decision, which critics say could render stateless 250,000 Dominican residents of Haitian ancestry.

Dominican President Danilo Medina agreed to the talks after a mid-December meeting with Haiti’s President Michel Martelly. Medina said then his government was willing to focus on migration, trade, poverty and the environment, but that it would not discuss the country’s plan to carry out the court ruling, which has sparked widespread international reproach.

The Constitutional Court ruling orders authorities to strip citizenship from children of illegal immigrants dating back to 1929, even if they were born in the country and previously held Dominican documents.

After conducting an audit of birth records, the government said about 24,000 people - of whom 13,672 were Haitian - would be affected by the ruling. Human rights groups suggest the number is likely exponentially higher.

A National Regularization Plan, called for as part of the court decision, will provide a path to permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship for those affected, the government says.

Although the constitution grants birthright citizenship, illegal immigrants and others deemed “in transit” are an exception and, therefore, not entitled to citizenship unless at least one of their parents was a legal resident, the court said.

The ruling has put the country largely at odds with the international community.

On December 18, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Obama administration has “conveyed our deep concern to the government of the Dominican Republic.”

She added that the United States had “urged the government to continue close consultation with international partners and civil society to identify and expeditiously address in a humane way concerns regarding the plan’s scope and reach to affected persons.”

CARICOM said the court ruling is out of synch with regional norms and principles. The Dominican Republic has been pushing for full membership in the organization.

Despite international pressure, the Dominican government has maintained it is not willing to revisit the ruling - which cannot be appealed.

While the Dominican decision has aroused angry reactions in Haiti, neither Lamothe, the prime minister, nor President Martelly have addressed the issue publicly, prompting criticism from human rights groups.

Additional reporting by Ezra Fieser and Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo; Editing by David Adams and Dan Grebler

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