Deisy Toussaint: Dominican Firebrand

Accidental Activist in the Dominican Republic

Source Alessandro Vecchi

Why you should care

The Dominican Republic has given way, a little, on its racist citizenship policies. The vicious pen of Deisy Toussaint might have played a part. 

Deisy Toussaint doesn’t seem like a political firebrand. The 27-year old wears tight sweaters and semi-translucent tank tops over slacks with pumps — Dominican business chic — and works long afternoons in the Vice Presidential library, polished nails clacking on the keyboard. 

Her country discriminated against migrants from neighboring Haiti, as well as their children, and one of her parents is Haitian, but Toussaint paid little mind. She spent the first-quarter century of her life blithe, unaffected.

But when the battle came to her door, Toussaint, a writer, wielded her pen and became a leading spokesperson for Haitian migrant rights. Her journey starkly illuminates a legal conflict that rendered stateless an estimated 210,000 Dominicans with Haitian parents. The conflict’s a muddle even to Dominicans, entwining nationality, citizenship and race.

When the battle came to her door, Toussaint, a writer, wielded her pen and became a leading spokesperson for migrant rights.

Last week, after months of pressure from a handful of writers like Toussaint and local and international human rights organizations, Dominican President Danilo Medina proposed to regularize the status of most of those affected. But the conflict has changed Toussaint, and no doubt others, forever. 

Man in suit and tie speaking at podium with flag behind him

Dominican President Danilo Medina

Source Getty

Toussaint wasn’t looking for a cause. In 2010 she was a promising young writer and university student in Santo Domingo. She loved the power of imagining her own world in fiction and was studying the more rigid rules of journalism. She wrote a poetic, fictionalized memoir about catalepsy, a nervous system disorder that causes temporary immobility and apparent death. It won a national literary prize and a state invitation to travel to Cuba for a literary fair.

Proud and excited, she headed to the migration office with the requisite ID to pick up her “VIP passport.” She paid the expedition fee and expected to receive the passport in a few hours.

Instead she waited two and a half years.

The passport officers told her they couldn’t give her one because of her “Haitian name.”

“I thought it was a joke,” she says.

Toussaint was summoned to the fraud department. Officers demanded she prove she was born in the Dominican Republic. Toussaint was flabbergasted, she says; she’d never considered herself Haitian. Her mother is a Haitian immigrant, her father is Dominican. Growing up, she spoke Spanish in a middle-class Santo Domingo neighborhood and had few Haitian friends.

They are making fun of us, so I make fun of them.

– Deisy Toussaint

Her father’s nationality should have shielded her from the policies affecting children of Haitian immigrants. But a family tiff when Toussaint was small led her mother to register her alone. So while Toussaint’s siblings have both parent’s names on their birth certificates, Toussaint only had her mother’s — and it’s a name that blares “Haitian.”

She had read in the press about “a lot of Haitians who came and asked for papers” and assumed they were born in Haiti, not in the Dominican Republic. But Toussaint’s ordeal with the passport office pushed her to explore her family background and the socio-political issues growing in the country.

The island of Hispaniola has long been riven. For decades Haitians have fled east to the comparatively wealthy Dominican Republic, many working illegally, others with temporary permits to work in state-owned sugar fields. They faced xenophobia and harsh conditions, but many put down roots. Subsequent generations, like Toussaint’s, have mostly assimilated.

People protesting during the day with signs

Dominican residents of Haitian descent protest outside National Palace, in Santo Domingo city, Dominican Republic, on April 8, 2014. 

Source Roberto Guzman/Xinhua/Corbis

But in the late 1990s, the Dominican state began to institutionalize discrimination with legal and policy decisions that inveighed against Haitian descendants. A new constitution in 2010 denied citizenship to children of illegal immigrants. In 2013 a Constitutional Court ruling made the denial retroactive. It ordered the Central Electoral Board to scour its records for children born to “irregular migrants” since 1929 and put them in a special registry of illegal aliens. An estimated 210,000 children of Haitian immigrants became stateless. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights calls the policies “grave violations” of human rights.  

“The real world is harder than fiction,” Toussaint says.

When the political climate last year began to look as absurd as Toussaint’s short stories, she turned to political satire. In her column for a major paper, Hoy, she wasted the policies. In a column titled “Let Me See If I Get This,” she outlined her options for getting citizenship documents. First, she wrote, she had to find somewhere to study Creole. Second, sneak into Haiti “clandestinely,” since she has no passport. Then apply for a Haitian passport, cross back into the D.R. and apply for residency. “And finally, yes, with my brand new Haitian passport I can represent the Dominican Republic abroad.”

“They are making fun of us, so I make fun of them,” she says.

Though a January poll found most Dominicans thought children of immigrants born in the D.R. should get citizenship, Toussaint’s is one of a few opposition voices in the press.

“The press here is intent on … aggravating negative feelings with the hope that this will force the government to be tougher on the Haitians,” says Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, director of the United Nations Refugee Agency in Santo Domingo.

This decision doesn’t erase the pain we’ve experienced.

– Deisy Toussaint

Toussaint finally got her passport in March. Her father, who now lives in Saint Martin, returned to the D.R. to officially recognize her as his daughter. After two and a half years, Toussaint changed her name to Deisy De Jesus Toussaint and got her travel document. It’s not exactly the resolution Toussaint wanted. Her nationality was restored “because my father is Dominican, not because I was born here,” she says. 

Last week the president issued a bill, which was passed into law by Congress, to regularize those who had birth certificates but lost their citizenship with the 2013 ruling. Those who never had documents, though, must undergo a yet-to-be-determined “naturalization” process even if they were born in the Dominican Republic.

Toussaint has a loud voice on this issue, but here’s an irony: Now that she is fully recognized as Dominican, she just wants to escape. A master’s in the U.S. or France, maybe. “This decision doesn’t erase the pain we’ve experienced,” she says, of the new bill.

“I want to leave the D.R. because I resent it,” she says. “I need to disconnect for a while. … If not, I will end up hating myself.”

This story was originally published May 21, 2014, and was updated Nov. 28, 2014.