Out of Frame: Citizenship in the Dominican Republic

By Nathan Nye

What happens when two countries that share a small island and a largely contentious history make decisions about citizenship? Controversy.

Last week Kenan hosted Duke professors Michaeline Crichlow and Deborah Jensen to discuss the issue of citizenship and statelessness in the Dominican Republic with lawyer Nassef Perdomo and scholar/public intellectual Rosario Espinal as part of our Conversations in Human Rights series.

As someone who was completely illiterate about the statelessness of Haitians in the Dominican Republic, I was fascinated by the topic, particularly the issue of framing so inherent in the debate (framing as an academic term generally means the way in which those with influence create social reality or the terms in which we explain a social reality).

For a little historical background, when the sugar industry was booming, thousands of Haitians came to the Dominican Republic to work, and many stayed. As other industries expanded, more Haitians came to find work in the DR. Now, generations later, the Dominican government has retroactively applied “traveling” status to some people’s Haitian ancestors effectively revoking citizenship or the understanding of citizenship.

This is an incredibly simplistic explanation, but it serves the basic function of what I want to discuss- framing.

According to our experts, the argument that the government has made on the issue is not that those of Haitian descent shouldn’t have citizenship, but rather the decision is the government’s to make.

The Dominican government has made what is either an incredibly narrow or a bullishly stubborn argument that Haitian citizenship does not have anything to do with classism, racism, and historical hatred, but rather sovereignty. Thus far they’ve been able to hold this line.

As a journalism enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated with framing. Large institutions have an incredible power to direct and diffuse criticism by addressing issues from a particular lens. Who decides that position? Why are they approaching it from a certain angle? What is getting dismissed when a frame becomes too narrow?  The ethical implications of framing are endless, and I was fascinated to hear about them in the context of the Dominican Republic today.

A huge thanks to our panelists and discussants for such a lively conversation!