Mikhail Sebastian lives in Los Angeles.
Edward Snowden’s efforts to escape the transit zone of the Moscow airport have turned a spotlight on the issue of “statelessness.” Snowden, however, is not stateless. He has options, regardless of how unappealing he may find them. But thousands of people in the United States are stateless — and trapped. Congress should take steps to address this issue and ensure that what has happened to me never happens to anyone else.
I am an ethnic Armenian. My parents are from Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed territory in Azerbaijan. I was born in Azerbaijan in 1973, when it was part of the Soviet Union. My family was in Turkmenistan when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, and no one would give me citizenship. Because I am of Armenian descent, Azerbaijan said I wasn’t an Azerbaijani. Armenia said that I hadn’t adequately proved I belonged there. After more than three years of discrimination, harassment and fear, I was able to get a travel visa to the United States in 1995. But my petition for asylum was rejected in 1996, and I was ordered to leave the country.
I prepared to go, but I was not able to get a new passport to travel. The Soviet Union, which had issued my passport, no longer existed, and no country recognized me as a citizen. Because I stayed beyond the deadline to leave, the United States processed a deportation order. Immigration officials detained me in August 2002 and tried for months to deport me. But U.S. officials couldn’t find a country willing to accept me.
I was released from detention in February 2003 and was ordered to report to the Department of Homeland Security every three months. I was issued a permit to work — and I have held jobs as a travel agent and a barista — but I have to reapply every year, a long, expensive process that requires taking time off and puts my job at risk. I have sought travel documents from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Britain, Japan, Russia, Switzerland, Turkmenistan and more than a dozen others. None has accepted me.
I have no place in the world to go.
In December 2011, after years of reporting to the U.S. government every few months, I took what I thought would be a short vacation to American Samoa. Even though I had checked with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and my airline before departing, my four-day trip turned into a year-long trap. When I tried to fly home, my travel documents were rejected. For months, U.S. officials said that by traveling to the U.S. island territory I had self-deported. I was stuck in American Samoa with no legal ability to work and only the clothes I had packed. When I finally was able to return home this year, I no longer had a job. My apartment and most of my things were gone, and I had lost many friends.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 12 million people in the world are stateless. Without citizenship, no country protects us, and we cannot get travel documents. Stateless people in the United States cannot leave even if they want to. We are on hold, living in a dehumanizing space without status or opportunity.
A provision in the immigration reform legislation that the Senate passed last month would give status to stateless people who are not legally recognized in the United States. But this measure could still be cut from the final compromise with the House.
I consider myself lucky that after 15 months in American Samoa and advocacy from attorneys, friends and even the UNHCR, U.S. officials recognized the injustice of my situation and allowed me to return home. But I remain in legal limbo. I fear being thrown into immigration detention at any time, even though I have broken no laws.
The United States is not a signatory to the 1954 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or the 1961 U.N. Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. It uses stop-gap measures to provide relief to vulnerable people like me. The United States ought to have a framework, as the European Union does, to address statelessness. Congress could allow people who have proved that they are stateless and meet certain criteria, such as not having a criminal record, to apply for a more secure legal status. This would permit people like me to live without fear of being arbitrarily detained.
The United States has always opened itself to the world’s suffering and oppressed people. A country with such a tradition of justice ought to address this issue.