- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) - A former, and possibly future, president of the Dominican Republic said Tuesday that migrant children who were issued birth certificates should be granted citizenship in his country, a somewhat softer position than the current government.

The divisive issue has prompted international condemnation of the Caribbean country.

Former President Leonel Fernandez told an economic forum in South Florida the children of many Haitian workers improperly received Dominican birth certificates before a 2010 Constitutional amendment clarified citizenship rules.

“They shouldn’t have done that, but they did,” said Fernandez. “We should fix that problem, recognize it - the Dominican nationality of all those who already have birth certificates.”

Asked whether he’ll seek a fourth term in 2016, Fernandez said: “It depends on how the wind blows.”

His remarks to the Palm Beach Strategic Forum echo statements he has made in other recent appearances and they are notable because Fernandez remains a powerful figure in the Dominican Republic. The remarks also offer more hope to migrants and their descendants than anything said in public by President Danilo Medina.

Fernandez’s proposal would also be a compromise to a Constitutional Court ruling that has divided his country and prompted outrage from human rights groups and governments in the region.

The court ruled in September that people born in the country should not have citizenship unless their parents were Dominican citizens or legal residents. Human rights groups say the law strips citizenship from more than 200,000 people, largely Haitian migrants and their descendants who crossed the border to cut sugar cane or take other low-wage jobs. The government says the figure is only about 13,000 people of Haitian descent and about 11,000 of other nationalities.

Medina has said the government is preparing a law to create steps to naturalization for non-citizens but has not yet released details of the measure. Fernandez made it clear that the Dominican Republic is not alone in not automatically granting citizenship to the children of non-citizens.

“In the U.S., if someone is born on American soil, automatically you become an American citizen. There is a tendency to believe this takes place worldwide and that is not true. It doesn’t happen in Switzerland, it doesn’t happen in France, it doesn’t happen in Germany, it doesn’t happen in Japan, it doesn’t happen in many places around the world.”

Outside the forum in West Palm Beach, the court ruling drew sharp criticism from a small group of Haitian-American demonstrators protesting the appearance by Fernandez. Among the protesters was Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, who said of those facing the loss of citizenship: “Denying their birthright is a crime.”