New U.S. Ambassador To Dominican Republic Plunges Into Country's Immigration Controversy

The U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic voiced his support Thursday for the country’s controversial immigration plan to register foreigners, adding that the Dominican government needs to respect the basic human rights of immigrants in a difficult situation.

Ambassador James Brewster’s comment came only a day after President Danilo Medina slammed critics of the country’s Constitutional Court ruling that specifies criteria to obtain a Dominican nationality and a few days after Dominican ambassador the U.S. Aníbal de Castro made his appeal for the U.S. support in an opinion piece published in The Miami Herald.

“The Dominican Republic has a long history of supporting its immigrant community, including providing access to free public services such as healthcare and education,” de Castro wrote. “As this process moves forward, the government remains fully committed to guaranteeing these critical services to all persons within the Dominican Republic.”

The issue of immigration in the Caribbean nation has become a major topic of debate since September when the Constitutional Court ruled that being born in the country does not automatically grant citizenship, and it directed officials to purge voter rolls of non-citizens, including people born to non-legal residents going back to 1929.

Advocates said 200,000 people could be stripped of citizenship, along with the documents they need to work or attend school. The government's initial count came to about 24,000 people who would be affected.

The ruling, based on the new, 2010 constitution, is a reflection of deep hostility to the vast number of Haitians who have come to the D.R., many of them who were originally brought in to work in the sugar industry, as well as their descendants.

"Deportations have been fairly steady since 2007. Using the court ruling as a justification is new," said Tobias Metzner, a Haiti-based counter-trafficking program manager for the International Organization for Migration. "The legal context has changed."

Last year, the United Nations asked the Dominican Republic to quickly reinstate the nationality of individuals affected by a recent court decision that could revoke the citizenship of tens of thousands of people.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that international legal standards require Dominican authorities to restore automatically the nationality of individuals affected by the ruling. People affected also need a simple way to obtain identity documents.

Brewster’s support of the Dominican government is the first major news since he was sworn into his post in November amid controversy in the island nation over his sexuality. He's openly gay.

In the conservative Dominican Republican, religious groups call it “an insult” and vowed they would make Brewster so uncomfortable that he would leave his post.

Without directly addressing or characterizing the anti-gay comments directed at him, Brewster said that some groups in the country continued to be marginalized. He said as ambassador it would be a priority for him to work on greater social inclusion.

“I will continue our efforts to support civil society, vulnerable populations, and the disenfranchised,” said Brewster, who served as LGBT co-chair for the National Democratic Party and a member of the board of the Human Rights Campaign.

“Everyone deserves human dignity and respect. Including diverse sectors of the population in the decision-making process to solve shared problems and reduce barriers to discrimination is a strategic and effective way to strengthen all societies," Brewster said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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