Harvard Graduate Daiana Lilo can’t get a law school loan because she is stateless. Credit: United Stateless via Instagram

Relief is Finally Coming for “Citizens of Nowhere” Living in the United States

By Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough

We hold no passports. No country recognizes us as citizens. And for too long, stateless people have been invisible to the U.S. immigration system.

That changed this week.

On August 1, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) finally recognized stateless people. The announcement by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas marks a significant milestone that could end the legal limbo for as many as 200,000 people in the United States whom no country will claim as a citizen.

Until now, the lack of legal recognition and protection has stateless people in the United States trapped in uncertainty. I know because I am one of them. I was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1988. Soviet-era rules prevented me from obtaining a passport as a young child, and I did not meet the criteria for citizenship under newly independent Ukraine. In 1996 my family fled to the United States. Years later, our asylum claim was rejected and we were told to self-deport. But where? I am a citizen of nowhere.

The lack of legal recognition and protection of stateless people in the United States has broad implications for our lives, and for American society. We fall in love and get married to Americans, but can’t get citizenship or a green card ourselves. We are entrepreneurs, but can’t start a business. Some of us even fled the horrors of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Others of us have come here from the former Soviet Union and the war in Ukraine.

One of us was just 15 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came to her house at 6 a.m., handcuffing her and putting her in a truck. She was about to go to school. Instead she ended up being strip-searched and put in ICE detention for six months. They only released her because there was nowhere to deport her to. Another of our members managed to graduate from Harvard. Now she’s unable to get student loans to go to law school. Women are also more likely than men to be stateless because many countries still only pass on citizenship to men, and only the fathers can pass citizenship on to their children.

Secretary Mayorkas and USCIS Director Ur Jaddou have announced a monumental shift. With the move, USCIS adopts the international definition of statelessness and provides a clear framework for USCIS agents to identify statelessness. USCIS staff will also be able to consider it as a primary factor in discretionary decisions; for example, deferred action or parole in place requests. The move makes the assessment process fairer for stateless people. And it opens up new possibilities for parole, asylum, and other forms of immigration relief.

The next step is to pass legislation to solidify the rights of stateless people in America. The Stateless Protection Act (SPA) is a much-needed measure. It was first introduced by Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland. It would offer protected status, green card eligibility, and a pathway to citizenship to stateless people in the United States. There are signs that the SPA could garner bipartisan support. In late 2022, Alaska’s two Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan passed a law to give citizenship for one stateless person, Rebecca Trimble. She came to the U.S. as an infant, only to discover later in life that there was an administrative error in her adoption papers. Her story captured the attention of her elected representatives, but it’s a waste of government resources to resolve the status of people like Ms. Trimble by passing a federal law for each one.

Of course, this is only the beginning. Many stateless people in the U.S. do not even realize they are stateless. Often they have received bad legal advice and they feel resigned to living in a perpetual legal limbo. But the recognition of statelessness by USCIS now gives us some hope that we can pursue more meaningful futures in the United States. This is a major step towards a world that respects everyone’s human right to nationality.

—Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough is Executive Director of United Stateless, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports stateless people in the United States. 

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