According to a recent report, about 4,000 people known to be stateless are living in the United States. Probably, many more are living here under the radar. Refugees International reports that there are over 12 million stateless people world-wide: “Statelessness results from factors such as political change, border demarcation or secession, forced expulsion, discrimination, nationality based solely on descent, and laws regulating marriage and birth registration.” Stateless people have “limited access to health care and education; prospects for employment are poor, leading to generations of poverty; and their right to freedom of movement is routinely violated. Stateless people face social exclusion, harassment, and violence.”
Current U.S. law does not provide stateless people with any legal status. Unable to return to their former countries, stateless individuals living in the United States risk being detained and must apply annually for permission to work. They also face travel restrictions and are often required to report regularly to immigration officials–a requirement that can last indefinitely.
When the Dan Glickman of Refugees International testified before Congress last month, he gave the example of Tatianna, a stateless woman from the former Soviet Union:
Tatianna is a 61 year-old mother and grandmother, a piano teacher who has lived in the United States for over 20 years. She was born in Russia during Soviet times and eventually moved to what is now Ukraine. In 1992, after being persecuted by the authorities for her political beliefs, she came to the United States with the younger of two sons and applied for asylum. Their case was denied in 1997. Following its independence Ukraine passed a law requiring people to have resided in Ukraine for two years following independence to be eligible for citizenship. Tatianna had fled before having lived in Ukraine for two years and she is therefore not recognized as a Ukrainian citizen. Russia doesn’t recognize Tatianna as a citizen either because Russian nationality laws require individuals to have lived in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Tatianna did not.
This means that the United States had nowhere to return Tatianna after denying her asylum claim. Tatiana and her son are stateless. No country recognizes Tatianna as a citizen. She has no nationality, and there is no legal pathway for her to acquire citizenship in the U.S. She lives in limbo and is unable to fully participate in society. She has no travel documents and no means to acquire them. She has been separated from some of her closest family members for decades. And although she and her son have paid taxes in the United States since they arrived 20 years ago, she is not eligible for social security. Tatianna must check in with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) every month by telephone and every six months in person. She never knows what might happen when she goes to DHS and lives in fear that she could be arbitrarily jailed.
The proposed Refugee Protection Act addresses the problem of statelessness and provides a path for stateless residents of the U.S. to obtain their permanent residency and ultimately their citizenship. Hopefully, support for the RPA will gain momentum and provide help to stateless people in the United States.