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Published: Wednesday January 8, 2014 MYT 9:55:01 AM
Updated: Wednesday January 8, 2014 MYT 9:55:59 AM

Citizenship threat hangs over Haiti, Dominican talks

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti (Reuters) - Haitian and Dominican authorities announced progress to resolve their differences over migration and trade in talks on Tuesday held under the cloud of a controversial court ruling that threatens to strip Dominican nationality from thousands of residents of Haitian descent.

Calling the meeting "historic" the two sides issued a joint declaration at the end of the day recognizing "progress made in the quest for a joint solution," though few specific details emerged.

The topic of migration dominated the talks, according to Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, speaking to reporters after the meeting ended. "The talks were held with serenity and mutual respect, and were frank, constructive and transparent," he said.

Agreement was reached to set up a program to provide visas to Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic, and the Dominican delegation agreed to "evaluate" a request for extended stay student visas for Haitian students.

They also agreed to continue meeting on a monthly basis, with the next meeting in the Dominican Republic.

The talks are the first under a newly created binational commission designed to improve often hostile relations between the neighbors. They share the island of Hispaniola, the most populous in the Caribbean, with a combined 20 million inhabitants.

But it remains unclear how the citizenship issue can be resolved, as Dominican officials have indicated the September ruling by the country's Constitutional Court is non-negotiable.

The delegations, led by Lamothe and the Dominican president's chief of staff, Gustavo Montalvo, were held in the Haitian border town of Ouanaminthe with observers from Venezuela, the European Union and the CARICOM, the Caribbean's main regional organization.

Haiti has expressed its concern following the court decision, which critics say could render stateless 250,000 Dominican residents of Haitian ancestry.

Dominican President Danilo Medina agreed to the talks after a mid-December meeting with Haiti's President Michel Martelly. Medina said then his government was willing to focus on migration, trade, poverty and the environment, but that it would not discuss the country's plan to carry out the court ruling, which has sparked widespread international reproach.

The Constitutional Court ruling orders authorities to strip citizenship from children of illegal immigrants dating back to 1929, even if they were born in the country and previously held Dominican documents.

After conducting an audit of birth records, the government said about 24,000 people - of whom 13,672 were Haitian - would be affected by the ruling. Human rights groups suggest the number is likely exponentially higher.

A National Regularization Plan, called for as part of the court decision, will provide a path to permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship for those affected, the government says.

Although the constitution grants birthright citizenship, illegal immigrants and others deemed "in transit" are an exception and, therefore, not entitled to citizenship unless at least one of their parents was a legal resident, the court said.

The ruling has put the country largely at odds with the international community.

On December 18, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Obama administration has "conveyed our deep concern to the government of the Dominican Republic."

CARICOM said the court ruling is out of synch with regional norms and principles. The Dominican Republic has been pushing for full membership in the organization.

Despite international pressure, the Dominican government has maintained it is not willing to revisit the ruling - which cannot be appealed.

(Additional reporting by Ezra Fieser and Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo; Editing by David Adams, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)

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