The right to a nationality seems trivial as compared to the many rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, nationality, belonging to a country, is crucial for an individual’s access to resources and security. For the estimated 2 million stateless persons worldwide, lacking a nationality has left them without a legal home or protection. Though the UN has sought to end statelessness by 2024, the reluctance of countries like the US to address statelessness in its own borders and the deliberate discrimination again stateless persons around the world has seriously limited the UN’s efforts and left stateless individuals in limbo.
The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless persons defnes statelessness as a condition in which individuals are without legal claim to citizenship in any country. Statelessness exists primarily in two ways. Individuals who are not recognized as citizens in any state, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar are de jure stateless. Individuals who could claim citizenship under the laws of a country but are not citizens, as typical in the break up of countries, are de facto stateless. However, failure to register newborns, financial barriers to citizenship, birth to stateless parents, political turmoil, lack of administrative oversight, changes in nationality, discrimination, citizenship restrictions, limitations on women’s ability to pass citizenship to their children, and other local laws or customs can also result in statelessness.
Despite having one of the largest programs to provide assistance for solving statelessness to foreign governments, the US currently has about 4,000 stateless people within its borders with no path to citizenship. The US manages not to create statelessness within its own borders through the principle of jus soli and jus sanguinis, which allow children born within the US and children born abroad to US nationals to become citizen. The US also provides that individuals losing citizenship through means of persecution in the US may be eligible to apply for asylum status, though the status is not guaranteed to them. These process do not address a the larger population of de facto stateless persons residing in the US. Legislation like the failed Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) could have assisted stateless individuals in the US by providing them a regularized status, but without concrete legislation stateless individuals have been made invisible by the law and rendered powerless.
Without a government, stateless persons are legal ghosts. They are highly vulnerable to trafficking, physical and sexual violence, exploitation, marginalization, abuse, displacement, and social exclusion. Furthermore, stateless people face limitations to accessing basic services including an inability to seek education, medical care, employment, secure finances, own property or housing, or get married, which can severely disadvantage stateless persons. Rather than addressing issues with statelessness, the US treats stateless persons in the same as undocumented immigrants.
While International Law prohibits the US from simply expelling stateless individuals, stateless persons are unable to obtain travel documents to leave the US, may be held in detention centers, are often required to frequently report to immigration authorities, and can be pressured to contact third party countries to obtain some form of documentation or citizenship allowing them be forcibly removed to that country. The recent court cases Zadvydas v. Davis (2001) and Clark v. Martinez (2005) ensure stateless individuals are not held in detention indefinitely, but that does not guarantee them any rights.
Stateless individuals can still remain in detention for up to six months legally, or until the US government can prove the forced removal of an individual is not possible. Removal proceedings may last for 90 days after which a judge may decide to release under supervision. Often stateless individuals who do remain in the US are issued work permits they can file for yearly if they can pay the fees, and are asked to report to immigration authorities on a regular basis. Limitations like this prevent individuals from accessing a realistic and legal livelihood in the US. Furthermore, in one of the more famous cases of statelessness in the US, the government did attempt to expel Mikhail Sebastian, an Armenian asylum seeker no longer recognized as a citizen in Armenia, from the US. Sebastian came to US and was allowed to stay even after being denied asylum. However, when Sebastian travelled on vacation to American Samoa, the US government claimed he self-deported and refused to allow him back into the country.
Stateless persons in the US cannot simply apply for legal recognition in the US, nor can they leave the country. They are without a home. There is a fundamental flaw with the US developing programs in other countries to end statelessness and condemning human rights abuses that create statelessness, while ignoring individuals that live in the same precarious situation at home. While the US may feel at odds with any statement that welcomes immigrants in the current political climate, stateless individuals do not disappear, nor should they be made to disappear by nationalist discourse and abusive policy. If the US hopes to address issues of immigration, rather than taking a hardline deportation policy, it should work to create a policy framework that regularizes the status of stateless individuals.
Toward the regularization of a legal status of stateless persons the US should adopt the suggested UNHCR guidelines. In cooperation with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security should collect data on stateless individuals receiving and being refused temporary legal status. This type of data should inform DHS in determination processes for stateless individuals that would grant them a temporary legal status.This determination should prevent stateless persons from spending extended periods of time in detention centers. Additionally, the temporary legal status should allow stateless persons to access regularized travel and identification documents. Any legal status should not impose unnecessary restrictions like frequent check ins with immigration officials or complicated work authorization processes. The goal of such temporary legal status should be to assist stateless individuals in accessing a naturalization process in the US that allows them full access to the rights and protections of citizens.
Countries like the US must be committed to ending statelessness in their own borders if the world hopes to even approach ending statelessness globally. Global nationalistic rhetoric has caused and perpetuates statelessness daily. It has also made stateless individuals invisible in countries who condemn human rights abuses and nationalistic policies internationally. While the US may be at odds with its own immigrant identity and international position, it is no excuse to systematically oppress individuals who have no other home.