Stateless people in the United States—estimated to number over 200,000—are at risk of prolonged, repeated, and arbitrary detention in violation of the US Constitution and international human rights law, according to a new report by the Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic in partnership with the nonprofit United Stateless. Stateless people lack citizenship or nationality in any country of the world for reasons beyond their control. Nearly all stateless persons within the US were born elsewhere, but because the US immigration system is silent with respect to statelessness, stateless people are unrecognized, unprotected, and invisible before any law, the authors of the report said.
Drawing on interviews with impacted stateless individuals and experts on statelessness, the report—“All I Want Is To Be Free”—finds that stateless immigration detainees have remained in detention for months or years without any prospect of release, in violation of the US Constitution and international human rights law. In some cases, after undergoing prolonged detention, stateless detainees have been forcibly deported to countries where they are not citizens, further depriving them of protection as required by international law.
“United Stateless is grateful that stateless voices with the lived experience of detention are represented in this report as it illuminates the real-life consequences of statelessness in the United States,” said Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough, executive director of United Stateless, a national organization led by stateless people whose mission is to build and inspire community among those affected by statelessness and to advocate for their human rights. “It is through no fault of our own that we became ‘citizens of nowhere.’ We hope this report will serve as a call to action to end the human rights abuses stateless people and their families experience within the US immigration and detention system so that we may reach our full potential and live in freedom.”
According to the report, the first step in rectifying the abuses suffered by stateless individuals is to identify those who are stateless and afford them adequate protection. This would require Congress to pass legislation establishing a “stateless determination procedure” with adequate procedural safeguards. Guided by international law, the report highlights four principal rights that the United States must guarantee to individuals determined to be stateless: employment authorization, identity and travel documents, protection against removal and detention, and a path toward naturalization. In anticipation of Congressional action, the report argues, the executive branch should take administrative measures to offer immediate relief to stateless people in detention and under orders of supervision.
The report proposes two legal statuses for individuals determined to be stateless for the U.S. government to bring its laws and policies in compliance with international human rights law:
- Lawful Permanent Resident Status, guaranteeing such rights as the right to work, to have identity and travel documents, and freedom from detention and deportation. It should also provide stateless individuals with a path to citizenship.
- Stateless Protected Status, affording stateless individuals nearly identical rights as those who receive Lawful Permanent Resident Status, but without a path to citizenship (due to certain criminal histories).
Statelessness is an international problem. Globally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has counted 4.3 million stateless individuals as of 2021, with 79 percent residing in Cote d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Latvia, and Syria. However, UNHCR acknowledges the actual number of stateless individuals worldwide is more likely around 10 million.
Much of the problem in the US stems from the government’s inaction on providing a legal solution for those who are stateless, according to the report. As a result, stateless people are funneled into ill-fitting US immigration channels or are forced to live on the margins of American society in an effort to avoid detection by immigration enforcement.
Stateless individuals face challenges similar to those faced by other undocumented persons but that are exacerbated by their condition of statelessness as they are not only undocumented in the US but in the entire world.Without identity documents, there are significant barriers to accessing basic necessities, such as employment authorization, bank accounts, and housing. Simple tasks like picking a child up from school can be a challenge without a valid form of identity, the report's authors said.
Further, unlike undocumented immigrants who have citizenship elsewhere, stateless individuals are ineligible for travel documentation, and, as a result, experience decades of family separation. Paradoxically, stateless people are generally unable to be deported (because no country recognizes them as citizens), but they remain subject to removal orders in the US and therefore at risk of repeated detention and deportation.
The report concludes with a sense of optimism that the US government is headed in the right direction. The Department of Homeland Security announced on December 15, 2021, that it was committed to adopting a definition of “stateless.” Recognizing individuals as such offers hope that positive change is imminent, the authors said. However, they added, since the announcement almost a year ago, DHS has yet to announce plans to implement these commitments. Meanwhile, stateless people continue to live in legal limbo and face extreme vulnerabilities. This report acknowledges that stateless people do not need promises, they need action.
"This report is for the stateless individuals who trusted us with their stories,” said Nick Schcolnik, ’23, a student co-author of the report. “We hope that this document contributes meaningfully to statelessness policy discussions, and that it ultimately helps facilitate the policy changes that the stateless community deserves."