Written by: Nick Napolitano
Assistant for Social Ministries for the Maryland, New England and New York Provinces
On June 19, 2014, the eve of the United Nations’ World Refugee Day, Centro Altagracia de Fe y Justicia (the Centro), a ministry of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, honored Fr. Mario Serrano, SJ, with the 2nd Annual Fr. Gerald Chojnacki, S.J. Faith and Justice Award. Named after the founder of the Centro and former provincial of the New York Province, the award recognizes an individual who has made significant and tangible contributions to the faith and justice work of the New York City immigrant Catholic community.
Fr. Serrano was honored for his years of work organizing, advocating with, and providing legal assistance to Dominican-born persons of Haitian descent, a group most recently threatened with statelessness due to a Dominican Constitutional Court decision in late 2013. While all stateless people are not refugees, they are particularly vulnerable to displacement and are included in the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency, making it appropriate that Fr. Serrano be honored with this award on the eve of World Refugee Day.
Fr. Serrano believes that our faith demands that we speak up for the rights of people marginalized and dehumanized by institutional discrimination saying, “Our faith calls us to be close to those people facing injustice. We are facing an unjust situation in the Dominican Republic. All Christians and Catholics have to be in solidarity with those people, in order to help them fight for their rights, in order to call on the Dominican government to rethink its position.”
Until 2010, the Dominican constitution was supposed to grant citizenship to all individuals born on Dominican soil. In 2010, the congress ratified a new constitution which denied Dominican citizenship to the sons and daughters of immigrants not legally present in the country. Last November the Constitutional Court retroactively applied the new citizenship requirements to hundreds of thousands of people born in the Dominican Republic to migrant families.
The court directed the government to examine birth registries since 1929 and strip anyone registered by irregular migrants of citizenship, impacting nearly 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent. The court ruling prevents Dominicans of Haitian descent from obtaining citizenship documents, making it impossible for them to get work authorization documents, pursue education past the 8th grade, get a social security number or passport, or receive the best available health care.
When word of this ruling reached the Dominican community in New York City, Centro Altagracia began organizing the Catholic community in Northern Manhattan and working with a coalition of Haitian and Dominican community groups to raise awareness and speak out against the ruling. The coalition planned an educational and cultural event that celebrated the contributions of both Dominican and Haitian cultures to the Dominican diaspora. The event featured a video of Fr. Serrano describing his work with Dominicans of Haitian descent and called people in the U.S. to action in response to this injustice.
Under extraordinary pressure from the international community and Dominican civil society, the Dominican Congress recently passed a new nationality law. This law recognizes the citizenship of people who were able to get a birth certificate but were then denied a subsequent document like an identity card. However, the majority of people affected by the Constitutional Court ruling were never able to register in the first place and are still living in limbo.
“It has been truly inspiring to collaborate with Fr. Serrano,” said Mary Small of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. “It’s rare to work with and learn from someone who has such a deep well of experience and wisdom, who offers a clear and prescient analysis, and who is committed to elevating the voices of those directly affected. Add in his poetic eloquence and unswerving commitment to justice, and it’s clear why Fr. Serrano is a beloved leader at the forefront of the struggle for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent.”
In 2003, when Fr. Chojnacki gathered together supporters to discuss the creation of what would become Centro Altagracia de Fe y Justicia, they were motivated by the work of Fr. Mario Serrano and the Jesuit social action center in the Dominican Republic. “Fr. Jeff Chojnacki, SJ pushed for the creation of the Centro so that the Jesuits could cultivate a presence in the New York City Dominican Catholic community,” noted New York Jesuit Provincial Fr. David Ciancimino, SJ, “encouraging parishioners on the economic margins of Northern Manhattan to put their faith in action through community organizing and advocacy.”
Today, the Centro is still guided by Fr. Serrano’s approach: putting faith into action and promoting social justice through needs-based initiatives and dynamic parish and community collaborations in Northern Manhattan.