LOS JOVILLOS, Dominican Republic – In a house with no running water surrounded by vast stretches of sugar cane, Abelinda Yisten Debel studies for a high school graduation exam she might not be allowed to take.
It's not just her diploma that's uncertain. The 19-year-old Yisten also faces the prospect of not being able to marry, get a formal job, or go to a public hospital if she gets sick.
She is one of an estimated 200,000 people who were born in the Dominican Republic and now may lose their citizenship, and the rights that go along with it, because of a recent Constitutional Court decision.
The court ruled that people who were born in the Dominican Republic to parents who were neither citizens nor legal residents are not automatically entitled to citizenship under a new constitution adopted in 2010. The effects of the decision are retroactive, and come as a particular shock to people like Yisten, who has rarely ventured beyond the dirt streets of her village and never traveled farther than the capital.
"It's sad because I'm not a foreigner. I'm from here," she said at her home — two rooms in a concrete barracks-like structure, built by the government for sugar workers, where 10 families share a bathroom.
Many in her central Dominican village, Los Jovillos, and across the country are waiting to learn their fate, some afraid to leave the house for fear they may be deported by immigration authorities — most likely to Haiti since most are of Haitian descent — because they have no papers. Some have lived in the Dominican Republic for generations.
"If they grab me, I'll be in trouble because I don't know where I would go. I've never even been to Haiti," said Juliana Deguis Pierre, the woman whose legal challenge resulted in the Constitutional Court ruling Sept. 23.
The court ordered the government and the Electoral Council to compile a list within two years of people who should be stripped of their Dominican birth certificate and identification card, known as a cedula, a document issued at age 18 that is required to participate in any public activity, from holding a job to casting a ballot.
Now, fear and uncertainty grip many in the country of 10 million. The government has said it will come up with a path to legal residency, but no details have been released. It may not come in time to help those whose papers have already been confiscated. President Danilo Medina has expressed sympathy for those affected but not said how, or if, he will help them.
The government meanwhile is under fire from human rights advocates at home and abroad for a ruling seen as racist. Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and soon-to-be chairman of the Caribbean Community, urged Medina to find a solution.
"Surely, this ruling by the court is unacceptable in any civilized community," Gonsalves said in a letter to Medina. "It is an affront to all established international norms and elemental humanity, and threatens to make the Dominican Republic a pariah regionally and globally."
Nadine Perrault, a senior regional child protection adviser for UNICEF, said she remains hopeful the government will find a way to avoid what would equate to rendering thousands of people stateless, depriving them of basic social protections.
Perrault also thinks it will be extremely difficult not just to enforce the court order but to determine whose citizenship must be revoked since the ruling applies to anyone born after 1929. "This is going to be impossible to implement," she said.
Already, though, many people have essentially been cut off from society.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti have always been uneasy neighbors and many Dominicans resent the presence of so many Haitians in their country, still poor but better off in relative terms.
For many years, the Dominican Republic granted citizenship to anyone born in its territory. But starting around the 1990s, the government began denying birth certificates and the cedula to the children of people who had entered the country without papers. In 2007, the Electoral Council official ordered the denial of citizenship documents to all children born to illegal immigrants and local officials began confiscating the papers of people who already had their documents.
That's what happened to Yisten. When she turned 18, she went to an Electoral Council office with her birth certificate to obtain her cedula. They took her birth certificate, leaving her only with a photocopy as proof that she was born in the Dominican Republic. "I felt so bad, I almost cried," she says. With no cedula, she can't take the exam and graduate. She keeps studying, but doesn't know if she will be able to get her diploma.
She and her neighbors, most in similar straits, wait to see what happens next. Some in the Dominican Republic say they should just go to Haiti, but it's not clear they will be able to obtain citizenship there and the impoverished country holds little allure.
"I don't know Haiti," said Noelie Cocok, who runs a little store in Los Jovillos. "This is my country
Associated Press writer Ezequiel Abiu Lopez reported this story in Los Jovillos and Ben Fox reported from Miami.
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Ezequiel Abiu Lopez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ezequiel_abiu