American Immigration Reform May Finally Help ‘Stateless’ People

Ed note, this is a guest post from Sarnata Reynolds of Refugees International

There are roughly 4,000 ‘citizens of nowhere’ in the United States today. They are from Kuwait, Burma, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and many other places. Legally speaking, however, they don’t belong anywhere. No country claims them as citizens. Some were rendered stateless after their nations disintegrated; others were stripped of their rights because of ethnic, racial, gender, or religious discrimination in their home countries.

In their day-to-day lives, most of these stateless individuals are indistinguishable from their American friends, neighbors, and coworkers. But when it comes to the American legal system, they just don’t fit in. Statelessness is not a recognized condition under U.S. immigration law, so it is nearly impossible for people without nationality to obtain residency, asylum, or citizenship in the United States. Those who do apply are doomed to years of bureaucratic back-and-forth and endless paperwork – often because immigration officers and courts simply don’t understand what statelessness means. Others end up in immigration detention where they can remain for years.

One stateless family that I spoke to in Texas languished in detention for months after their asylum application was denied. They tried to explain that they had nowhere else to go because they lacked citizenship in any country, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers refused to believe them. When ICE couldn’t find a country that would accept them, the family was told that if they failed to arrange their own deportation they could remain in jail indefinitely. After having their requests ignored by 50 different countries, ICE finally released the family on parole. But even today, legal status in the U.S. is beyond their reach.

Now, after years of effort by Refugees International and others, this broken system might finally be fixed. As part of the immigration bill introduced by the Senate’s so-called Gang of 8 (S.744), stateless people in the U.S. would be given the opportunity to establish a permanent home. If passed, the bill would allow stateless individuals to apply for conditional legal status, and this could eventually be converted into permanent residency and citizenship. This would be a substantial step toward protecting and respecting the rights of these vulnerable people.

This legislation is also part of a larger undertaking by the U.S. government to engage on statelessness issues internationally. In December 2011 in Geneva, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed the Obama Administration to both the enactment of statelessness legislation at home, and the elimination of gender discrimination in nationality laws abroad. A taskforce on statelessness has been created inside the Department of State. But before America can hope to eliminate statelessness abroad, we have to make sure our foreign policy is aligned with our values here at home.

Passing legislation that supports stateless people would be a strong signal to those governments that refuse to confer citizenship despite a person’s birth, long-time residence, or direct family connections to a nation. Already, the Obama Administration has spoken forcefully to the Dominican Republic about restoring citizenship to Dominicans of Haitian descent, and it has urged Kuwait to thoroughly review the status of that country’s stateless population. Indeed, President Obama himself addressed the plight of Burma’s one million stateless Rohingya during his historic trip last year. Coupling this diplomacy with domestic protections would bolster U.S. efforts to eradicate statelessness worldwide.

Senator Chuck Grassley has offered an amendment which would strip these important statelessness protections from the Senate’s immigration bill, and Refugees International urges every senator to reject this harmful amendment. Simply put, Senator Grassley’s proposal would make our immigration system less efficient, undermine a key tenet of our foreign policy, and deny fundamental rights to some of the most vulnerable people in America.

Republicans and Democrats should agree that stateless people living among us must be protected. These individuals have been stripped of their economic, social, political, and civil rights, and they have nowhere else to turn. Congress should finally give them a place to call home.

Sarnata Reynolds is Statelessness Program Manager at Refugees International.